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The way of Rome

Claudio Maria Betti does not want to belong to anybody, he says. Not to the Left, not to the Right. It shows.

Betti was in Australia in February, as the United States and Australia began to marshal forces in the Gulf. Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, had been in Rome to see the Pope. The Pope’s envoys had carried pleas for peace to the East and to the West: Etchegaray to Baghdad and Laghi to Washington.

With a tall, imposing figure and a deep smoker’s voice, Claudio Betti’s presence, energy and good humour belies the gravity of his mission. Since 1998 Betti has been the Director for Special Operations for Rome’s Sant’Egidio Community and is personal assistant to the founder and president, Professor Andrea Riccardi. Betti’s CV reads as a chronicle of global peacekeeping for the last 20 years: Lebanon, Mozambique, Iraq, Algeria, Guatemala, Burundi, Kosovo and Serbia.

Riccardi began the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome in 1968, in the renewing spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and Betti joined shortly afterwards. At that time, brokering international peace deals was probably the farthest thing from Riccardi’s vision or Betti’s plans.

Riccardi and his small group of high school students began with visits to the slums on the outskirts of Rome. The next step was an afternoon school for children. They founded a community which now, 35 years later, has 40,000 members in more than 60 countries. The Church of Sant’Egidio in Rome’s Trastevere district is still the administrative and spiritual home of the movement.

Why has Sant’Egidio thriven when so many other peace movements have failed? It is the poor, Betti says, that have saved them ‘from becoming one of those ideological entities, which sooner or later lose their reason for existing’. One quickly discerns in Betti a typically Italian suspicion of ideologues.

When Betti joined the community, the first thing he was asked to do was to help a child with his homework. Twenty years later he was brokering peace in Mozambique: ‘in a very Roman way—by flattering, by shouting.’ The people of Sant’Egidio persuaded the Mozambique government to engage in talks with rebels. They then persuaded the rebels to talk to the government. Betti and his colleagues intended simply to bring the factions to the table. Someone else would take over the mediation. No-one did, and Sant’Egidio was ‘stuck with a process’. After 27 months of negotiations, the parties established a peace that is still holding after ten years.

Betti’s answer to Saddam Hussein is a pragmatic one. Bring soldiers to the region, and then invite the Iraqis to the table. ‘Say—we are ready to fight, but we don’t like war.’ According to Betti, Saddam Hussein had to be given a reasonable way to leave. He was cornered, with no way out. ‘You know that wherever you go you’re going to be hit. But in a situation of dialogue, everything is possible.’ Is brinkmanship always the answer? ‘Not in general, but in this case especially.’ Troops had to be deployed, he believes, otherwise the American people would not be satisfied. ‘Rhetoric has a life of its own,’ he says, referring to a ‘mentality of revenge’. ‘They have to prove to the world that they’re the strongest. I think the strong man is the one who sits at the table.

I’m not against the military as such, as long as they don’t shoot.’

Betti has little confidence in the United Nations, who are ‘prisoners of their own structures, of their own
ideologies’. The UN structure, he believes, is ‘an immense juggernaut that feeds itself’. Opposed to the power of veto in the Security Council, he points out that it leaves no possibility of sanctions against the powerful. ‘The UN can only sanction the poor and the weak.’ According to Betti, ‘sanctions are never an answer’, serving only to strengthen the government in power. ‘They are totally useless. They only touch the poor. Very cruel.’ Betti repeats several times that war is the mother of all poverty. He adds that poverty is also the mother of a lot of wars.

When the Pope received the Sant’Egidio Community leaders to mark their 35th anniversary, he exhorted them not to ‘be hindered by acts of terrorism or by the threats that are gathering on the horizon. We must not be resigned as if war were inevitable’. Short of a miracle, war was indeed inevitable. Betti’s only hope now was that, even though it might be too late for Iraq, ‘we may be able to lay the foundation for a different understanding of war in the future’.

Betti looks to a day when war will be abolished as a means to solve international conflict. For those who would dismiss this as fanciful, he invokes the Italian activist priest Luigi Sturzo. Sturzo reminded his detractors that it was once said that slavery would never be abolished. Betti, like Sturzo, believes passionately that peace and justice are possible. But he is not encouraged by the signs. ‘During the Cold War, everybody was talking about nuclear disarmament. Today, nobody talks about it any more. It almost assumes that it might happen. So I’m really scared.’

John Paul II has spoken and written a lot about peace and justice, most recently in relation to Iraq. But those who preach the message of justice do not always cite Rome as their inspiration, even as their ally. The Sant’Egidio Community, however, places itself squarely in the heart of the Church. This is part of its paradox: a spirit of renewal deeply immersed in the tradition. 

Joshua Puls practises as a lawyer and psychologist, and is Chaplain of Newman College, Melbourne.



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