West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has reportedly been invited by Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, for an international peace event, ‘Peoples as Brothers, Future for Earth’. Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Great Imam of Al Azhar (Egypt) Ahmad Al Tayyib have also been invited, reports say.
President of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Prof Marco Impagliazzo writes to West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, inviting her to an event in Rome on October 6th & 7th to attend "World Meeting for Peace "Peoples as Brothers, Future Earth".— ANI (@ANI) August 11, 2021
(File photo) pic.twitter.com/QgcowQPGjs
The letter, sent on the 22nd of July, reportedly congratulated Mamata Banerjee “on your significant election and for the important work for social justice, for the development of your country and, therefore, for peace, which you have been doing for over ten years now”.
The invite is also reported to have said, “Allow me to tell you that I feel your commitment and your generous battles in favor of the weakest and most disadvantaged, very close to my sensitivity and to the work of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome and in all the world.”
The suspicious bit about the news is that it has only been covered by Indian media. Given that Pope Francis and Angela Merkel have been invited, one would have expected coverage of the news in western media but that is apparently not the case.
And given the West Bengal Chief Minister’s previous experiences with global awards, especially the one that claimed to have been associated with the UN, there is reason for much caution.
Nevertheless, media reports in India say that Mamata Banerjee may not attend the event after all as the dates clash with Mahalaya, a very joyous occasion for Bengalis across the world and one that the Chief Minister is expected to spend with citizens here.
However, it is a good time perhaps to learn a bit more about the organisation behind the event in question.
What is the Community of Sant’Egidio?
According to its website, “Sant’Egidio is a Christian community born in 1968, right after the second Vatican Council. An initiative of Andrea Riccardi, it was born in a secondary school in the centre of Rome. With the years, it has become a network of communities in more than 70 countries of the world.”
Andrea Riccardi is a former Minister of Italy. A historian, politician, activist and professor, Riccardi served as the Minister for Integration and International Cooperation without portfolio in the Mario Monti government that served for 18 months.
The Community focuses on the poor and refugees, leading several efforts for the welfare of migrants. It also works for the homeless, HIV/AIDS patients and the destitute.
Nonetheless, the Community has had its share of controversies. A memoir of a former member of the Community caused quite the stir. In the memoir, the former member alleged that the authoritarian system that governed the lives of the community members had led to his separation from his wife through ‘coercion’.
In the memoir, the former member, identified as ‘G.F.’, says, “Both of G.’s parents were annoyed to see that their daughter, after beginning to frequent the community of Sant’Egidio, was often gone, did not come home for lunch or dinner, and didn’t even spend Christmas with the family. They had many discussions until she, with the support of the community, left home and stayed with one friend in the community, then with another. She didn’t tell her parents where she was living, and rarely called them. Her mother pleaded with her, but she said she was proud to have left her family to dedicate herself body and soul to the service of the community.”
The memoir said further, after elaborating that marriages were often arranged by the Community, “The most observant plan with their spiritual father whether or not to have children, whether to have a child immediately or after a few years. One of my friends was saddened to the point of tears when his wife, after he told her that he wanted a child, replied that he would first need to consult his spiritual mother.”
“Some of the couples within the community decide themselves not to have children, but frequently it is the spiritual parents who do not want them to have children, and they use their influence on the couples. In the face of the confusion of people outside the community, the usual responses are: “We’ll have one in a few years,” or “It just hasn’t happened yet.” Some have adopted children,” it added.
The person said about his marriage, “Returning to my girlfriend: she quickly became pregnant […] and in a little over two months we were married. In this brief period, I had to meet with all of my spiritual parents, old and new, and undergo their criticisms, accept their accusations of immaturity, thoughtlessness, and male chauvinism.”
He stated, “I cannot remember a more embarrassing day in my entire life than that one: I was about to marry a woman I did not love; I was ashamed to present her to my family; I felt the judgment of the community weighing upon me; I was waiting for I child I hadn’t wanted; my future was uncertain, and I was afraid.”
The Community of Sant’Egidio also participated heavily in matters of global politics and diplomacy. Franco de Courten, Italian Ambassador to Algeria between 1996 to 1998, criticised in harsh words the Community’s diplomatic efforts.
In his memoirs, he said, “I went to visit the archbishop of Algiers, Msgr. [Henri] Teissier. […] He had particularly harsh words to say about “some Algerian political exponents who, by taking advantage of terrorism and proposing negotiations with extremists, wanted to rise to positions of power.” From his references to the so-called “St. Egidio Group” and particularly to Aït Ahmed´s FFS party, I understood clearly what he meant. […] By “St. Egidio Group” he meant Algerian political parties (not all of them and especially not government representatives) which in Rome in 1994, via an initiative proposed by St. Egidio (an organization normally concerned with helping the poor) and with our government´s own quiet blessing, had signed their names to a political platform with some FIS [Islamic Salvation Front] exponents.”
It continued, “The purpose of the platform was to reach a negotiated solution to the Algerian crisis. Immediately afterward, things had changed substantially; some of the signing parties became disassociated and the Islamist participants were ever the more marginalized, saying in public statements they refused to abandon armed conflict. Meanwhile terrorism raged all the more. Even if the initiative failed (and nobody doubts this), St. Egidio has continued in all ways and in every community to re-launch the idea and to seek dialog and negotiation.”
Another memoir said, “The archbishop spoke poorly about St. Egidio. Among other things he asked me if the Italian government was behind the community´s foreign ” policy.” […] Msgr. Teissier vehemently expressed his disappointment regarding the content of a book written on the Algeria situation. It was a book recently published in Italy by St. Egidio community exponents. […] He told me that book contained affirmations (some of which were false) which might jeopardize the safety of his colleagues, not to mention the French, and to some degree, even the Italian community in Algeria.”
One of the Courten’s memoirs shows that not even the Algerians were happy with the Community. The memoir from January, 1997 stated, “Algerians had huge problems with an interview about Algeria which in my view was a mistake. The interview was given by [Piero] Fassino, one of the foreign affairs undersecretaries and appeared in the [Italian leftist daily] “L´Unità”. […] I fear that both Aït Ahmed and St. Egidio´s positions are given too much attention and without deep consideration in Rome and within the PDS [of which Fassino is a member]. […] I was urgently summoned to the Algerian ministry of foreign affairs, […] where Ambassador [Amar] Bendjama told me if Rome “intends to reopen the St. Egidio Group, it is free to do so. But it must expect crisis to occur between the two countries.””
Community of Sant’Egidio shares a close relationship with Pope Francis
The Community celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018 and the Mass on the occasion was presided over by Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and the most senior aide to Francis. During the event, Parolin heaped praises on the organisation.
Pope Francis had visited the headquarters of the organisation, which describes itself as a lay movement, in 2014. Within the Church, it has the reputation of being a center-left social justice Catholic platform.
Given its antecedents, its move to invite Mamata Banerjee to one of its events is indeed surprising, if it is indeed true. Pope Francis and Angela Merkel are heads of countries, it is unclear where a Chief Minister figures into this. But given the Church’s interference in Indian domestic political issues, it would not be surprising in the least bit.
Nonetheless, OpIndia reached out to them for a confirmation of the invite but has not received any response. We will update our report with the response if and when it arrives.