Italy’s Government Following Through on Promise to Aid Persecuted Christians
Giorgia Meloni’s administration has appointed a special envoy dedicated to ‘ensure that religious freedom can be everywhere.’
VATICAN CITY — When Giorgia Meloni vowed two years ago to “always fight for the freedom of Christians in the world,” her chances of becoming Italy’s prime minister were relatively slim and her promise seemed a worthy but vague aspiration.
Yet last month, with Meloni as prime minister since October, her government seems to be adhering to her promise by announcing the appointment of a special envoy dedicated to persecuted Christians.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani declared on Jan. 10 that he would soon appoint a “special envoy of the foreign ministry to protect the Christian communities persecuted in the world” and that he had “asked the Order of Malta to help us ensure that the suffering of these populations is reduced.”
The ancient chivalric order, whose motto Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum means “Defense of the Faith and Service to the Poor and the Suffering,” will “work together” with the Meloni government “to protect Christian minorities in the world,” he said, adding that he believed it was “right to protect them and ensure that religious freedom can be everywhere.”
“There must be reciprocity, and we will fight for this,” said Tajani, a former vice president of the European Parliament who organized a high-level European Parliament conference on interfaith dialogue and the situation of Christians around the world in 2015.
In comments to the Register, the Order of Malta’s grand chancellor, Riccardo Paternò, said the order “warmly welcomes” Italy’s decision.
He highlighted how his organization already offers “daily aid programs in war-ridden countries where regimes and violence often lead to the oppression of minorities” and that its medical teams “network closely with local governments and aid organizations, focusing on the neediest segments of the population, such as persecuted minorities, including Christians of course.”
The envoy has yet to be named, but Paternò said the Order of Malta trusts the Italian government “will be able to make the best possible choice.”
Growing Global Persecution
News of a special emissary comes after reports that more than 360 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith worldwide, and the number is growing. Last year was reportedly the worst for Christians worldwide due to increasing violent discrimination, suppression and discrimination, according to the latest “World Watch List” released in August by Open Doors, a Christian advocacy group.
In its latest report, published last November, Aid to the Church in Need spoke of the “Great Persecution” that is spreading from the Sahel to China, from North Korea to the Gulf, and passing through various parts of India and Pakistan.
“Of the 26 nations in which persecution of religious minorities is active, 12 are African countries,” said Alessandro Monteduro, director of Italy’s Aid to the Church in Need. He added that, often, these are countries “where the Great Persecution had not yet penetrated until a few years ago.”
In comments to the Register, Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean.org, a Catholic charity assisting persecuted Christians, praised the Meloni government’s move as “as extremely important and necessary.”
“Like the Orbán government in Hungary, Italy has recognized that the worst religious persecution in the world is against Christians and needs a robust response,” he said. “Thank you, Signora Meloni.”
In 2016, the Hungarian government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the first Western government to set up a special department for persecuted Christians after several years of quietly helping Christians in the Middle East.
Beginning with a 3-million-euro ($3.22-million) grant, the State Secretariat for the Aid of Persecuted Christians, through its “Hungary Helps” program, now supports faith-based initiatives in more than 50 countries, with more than 270 humanitarian and development projects, including in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The program helps Christian communities there rebuild after years of persecution and also manages projects in Africa, mostly in Nigeria and Congo, reconstructing institutions and improving education and health care after violent persecution by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram. Hungary Helps says the project there contributes to mitigating migratory flows from Nigeria by restoring the institutions needed for daily life.
‘Solidarity, Caring and Fellowship’
Tristan Azbej, state secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians and the Hungary Helps program, told the Register Feb. 16 that the success of Hungary Helps is largely due to making personal contact with communities that are persecuted. This brings not only greater efficiency but also “solidarity, caring and fellowship” that they greatly appreciate and can sometimes have a more positive impact than the humanitarian assistance they provide.
Such direct contact is also continuously maintained so that Hungary Helps can “react to any humanitarian events in a timely manner, and, more importantly, we can be sure that we help with what is needed — not what we think is needed,” he said.
Azbej said another key aspect of their success is that whereas some Western governments are reluctant to work with overseas faith-based agencies, the Hungarian government has no such reticence.
“[We] are only concerned about the humanitarian need and peace-building, not politically correct language,” he said. Boko Haram and ISIS “murder Christians because they are followers of Jesus Christ not because of climate change, as some Western politicians would like to interpret these violent acts.”
Hungary Helps reports it has assisted almost a million people since its launch, but Azbej believes the “greatest achievement has been to draw international attention to the silenced phenomenon of Christian persecution.” He and his department are “ready to share the key lessons learned” from their experience over the past six years if the Meloni government requests it.
He also praised the work of the Order of Malta, namely its Hungarian Charity Service, which the Hungarian government supports not only because of their long-standing reputation in the field but also due to their strong connections in the Middle East and East Africa.
Paternò said the Order of Malta’s help for the persecuted includes a project in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq after the region was invaded by ISIS from 2014 to 2017.
“Our reconstruction program focuses on repairing damaged or completely destroyed homes, assisting small and medium-sized businesses to make a fresh start, creating jobs and vocational training centers, improving the school system, and promoting social cohesion and peaceful coexistence between the various ethno-religious groups,” Paternò said.
Worldwide, he said its relief service, Malteser International, is working with Aid to Church in Need and several Iraqi and international partners “to ensure our efforts are locally anchored and have a lasting impact.”
Italy’s Increasing Commitment
Even before the Meloni government came to power in October, Italy had been showing concrete signs of solidary with persecuted Christians.
In 2019, the government established a fund for persecuted Christian communities after effective lobbying from Aid to the Church in Need. And last May, the government of Mario Draghi appointed a special envoy, Andrea Benzo, for the protection of religious freedom and interreligious dialogue.
Italian lawmaker Paolo Formentini, who was the first to support a resolution that committed the government to create such a position, said the appointment showed “our commitment to defend all creeds, starting with the Christian one, which is the most persecuted in the world.”
The Meloni government is now going a step further on behalf of persecuted Christians.
Tajani recently met the Coptic community during a recent visit to Egypt, while Meloni had a face-to-face meeting with Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, on a recent visit to Iraq.
Until recently, the president of Aid to the Church in Need in Italy was Alfredo Mantovano, a devout Catholic and a friend of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the former vicar of Rome. Meloni recently appointed Mantovano undersecretary to the prime minister.