This article was originally published on www.orderofmalta.int.
Magistral Palace, 21 January 2021
Mr. Doyen, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The global pandemic has meant that the traditional audience with the diplomatic corps could not take place this year. I am very sorry about this as it would have been the first opportunity to meet you personally. I trust this will happen in the near future.
I thank the Ambassador of Cameroon, His Excellency Antoine Zanga – Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps – present today on behalf of the entire diplomatic corps accredited to the Sovereign Order of Malta. Your words, Ambassador, are an invitation to face with confidence the challenges that this new year will present us with. I would also like to extend a warm greeting to the new ambassadors of Armenia, Georgia, Latvia, Thailand, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lebanon, Ecuador and Kazakhstan who presented their credentials during 2020 and to those of Colombia, Nicaragua, Estonia and European Union who presented their credentials this week.
I take this opportunity to remember with emotion the Prince and Grand Master Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, who passed away on 29 April last. During his two years in the high office of Grand Master he led the Order with commendable commitment and foresight in a spirit of service and humility. Not only have we lost a man of God, but also a Grand Master who, with his simplicity, but above all his example, his words and his gestures, transmitted harmony and serenity. In the days before his death, he was very disappointed he’d been unable to complete the reform of the Constitution and the Code, something he held dear. His legacy will illuminate the path we will follow together, in the sign of faith and hope. I am also grateful to Fra’ Ruy Gonçalo do Valle Peixoto de Villas-Boas, who assumed the leadership of the Order after the death of Fra’ Giacomo as Lieutenant ad interim during a very intense and complex period.
We leave behind a decidedly difficult year and face one still full of uncertainties. The Covid-19 pandemic, with its devastating effects on the health and economy of many nations, is added to global tensions and conflicts, the growing problems of famine, environment degradation, the issue of refugees and those fleeing war, terrorism and hunger and the many forms of violence that humiliate and offend human dignity. The virus has hit the industrialized western world hard, but even more the poor countries and the most fragile – the poor, the disabled and the elderly, especially the elderly alone. The numbers of those who have been infected and those who have died – in constant increase – are shocking.
Covid-19 represents an epochal challenge for us all. The Holy Father was clear about this when he said, in no uncertain terms, that we are all in the same boat and no one is saved alone. The pandemic crisis has further heightened social inequalities, accelerating the gap between rich and poor in terms of access to medical care and economic resources to cope with the crisis. We must realise that, when facing an emergency that has no boundaries and makes no distinctions, these inequalities are intolerable. A new social model based on solidarity and respect for the dignity of each individual is an ethical imperative.
We must all make an effort to strengthen international cooperation based on renewed trust in one another, in particular by relaunching an efficient and shared multilateral system. Multilateralism is the best guarantee for ensuring peace, harmonious economic and social development and for protecting even the smallest nations, and we have to adapt it to today’s changing times.
The pandemic has not stopped the Order of Malta’s charitable activity on which our mission is based. Our first concern was to protect our projects worldwide, and first of all our operators and beneficiaries, enabling us to continue our humanitarian work. Many of the social and health projects carried out in the 120 countries in which the Order of Malta operates have been expanded and/or converted into programmes for Covid-19 prevention and treatment. Since the onset of the pandemic last year, the Grand Priories, Associations and our volunteer and rescue corps in Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Ireland and in many other countries have given their support to national health systems. Covid-19 hospitals and wards were opened and many of the existing hospitals the Order of Malta manages were made secure, and in some of these pavilions were opened for Covid-19 patients. Programmes for assisting and delivering basic necessities to people in isolation have been activated, as well as transportation services for patients and psychological support programmes for sick people and their relatives. Many associations have managed to continue routine home visits, providing medical assistance to the elderly, very often isolated and forced to live this complex phase in solitude. For our facilities for the elderly – I am thinking of the over 70 homes in England, for example, and the numerous facilities in Germany – a particularly delicate task was stopping visits of relatives and friends and implementing stringent safety measures to protect the health of residents, whilst ensuring the possibility of human contact through technological means. This involved rethinking daily activities, investing in staff training and introducing new tools.
In many countries in Asia and Africa, there have been awareness-raising campaigns and hygiene services and infrastructure for access to running water have been improved. This is the case of many of our projects in Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia, where Covid-19 prevention activities, including information campaigns, distribution of hygiene items, points for hand washing and testing, have been added to the Order’s long-standing programmes in these countries, such as those for Hansen’s disease and other forgotten illnesses. In Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, health equipment purchased for the Ebola virus response has been reallocated for Covid-19 patients. In South Sudan, projects have been set up to encourage prevention.
Many of these programmes have been implemented thanks to the work of our diplomatic missions in the countries of accreditation.
Covid-19 vaccines represent the real hope of returning to a normal life. However, these vaccines must be promptly distributed worldwide without global economic competition in the spirit of Pope Francis’ heartfelt appeal in his latest Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti that “no one is excluded“. As Grand Chancellor Albrecht Boeselager reiterated in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September, “the Order of Malta shares and strongly supports the words of Pope Francis and the appeal launched last March by German President Steinmeier and four other heads of state. We believe that a fair, wide and rapid distribution of the vaccine in the world is not only ethical, but essential from the scientific point of view to contain the possible new waves of the pandemic”.
On the diplomatic and scientific front, the Order of Malta has helped to promote better knowledge of the virus and of containment measures and therapies. The “Doctor to Doctor” project, a virtual platform we created in March, consists of a network of experts in epidemiology and virology linked to the Order. These experts regularly meet online doctors and political and health authorities in the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America to discuss best practices and the latest advances in medical research. So far, we have held over a dozen meetings, the last of which has been with Gaza, where the situation is dramatic: one third of the population is currently positive and the health infrastructure is completely inadequate. These meetings are regularly attended by some of our ambassadors from the countries in which we are present, such as Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon. I am extremely grateful to them, as well as to the many doctors and scientists who devote time and resources to the initiative. Faced with this global health threat, as our Grand Hospitaller, Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, recently recalled in his speech at the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, “international and intergovernmental organisations, in tandem with civil society, have a duty to foster dialogue and to promote the exchange of information on the results achieved”.
The pandemic has increased the number of people in the world suffering from hunger precisely because it has struck a hard blow to the informal economy of many emerging countries hard and has brought those countries living on tourism to their knees. The pandemic has penalized all countries, but especially those that cannot resort to debt to support employment and the economy. It is clear that our humanitarian action is more necessary than ever. To stem this phenomenon, last year the Order of Malta appointed a Special Envoy for new forms of exclusion to analyse how these can cause disability, marginalisation, loneliness and rare diseases.
Despite the major limitations imposed by the pandemic, our national structures have managed to continue distributing meals to deprived persons, providing home deliveries of food and basic necessities. I am thinking for example of the “Meals on Wheels” projects in Lithuania and Hungary. There are also programmes for the distribution of non-perishable food products overseas, to marginalised neighbourhoods of cities in the Dominican Republic and degraded villages in Peru, Uruguay and Puerto Rico. In Australia and the United States, support for the poorest people and the distribution of primary goods and sanitation products have been stepped up.
In addition to this complex and delicate framework, there are ongoing conflicts in many areas of the world. From the troubled Horn and Central Africa region with the crisis in Tigrè in Ethiopia, to the clashes in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Greater Middle East – starting with Yemen, where the terrible humanitarian crisis has been going on for years and shows no sign of diminishing, and Syria, where ten years of war have destroyed a land rich in history and culture, tearing apart a thousand-year-old fabric of peaceful coexistence and dialogue between different religions. Not to mention the unresolved conflicts and tensions in the Caucasus region, particularly in Nagorno-Karabakh, recently the theatre of military actions causing death and destruction, and in Georgia. Here too, I would like to make a heartfelt appeal for the full respect for human rights.
We dedicated a conference to the Middle East and the Holy Land last year, attended by our diplomatic representatives as well as many of the managers of our projects in the region. We are concerned about the exodus of Christians, not only because this area is the cradle of Christianity, but above all because Christians have proven to be an important factor in dialogue between the different religions in the region. In March, the Holy Father will travel to Iraq where the Christian haemorrhage has increased after the violence suffered in recent years.
It is precisely in Iraq, in the Kurdistan and central Iraq regions, that our international humanitarian agency, Malteser International, has been present since 2014 to provide healthcare to the local population and displaced persons. There is special focus on medical and psychosocial assistance to people traumatized by years of violence and persecution. We also support food–security programmes and training courses on agricultural production and are increasingly involved in the reconstruction of housing and infrastructure in the region.
We also have an ever-increasing presence in Lebanon. Our association, with its network of mobile healthcare centres and clinics, assists everyone in need, regardless of religion, thus helping to prevent interethnic tensions. We know that Lebanon has been experiencing one of the most tragic periods in its recent history, with a very serious economic and social crisis, aggravated by the pandemic and culminating in the devastating explosion that struck Beirut last August. I want to express my profound gratitude for the invaluable contribution of our association and its members and volunteers who are working tirelessly in every part of the country. The Order of Malta has also recently launched agricultural programmes to support small local businesses.
I would also like to stress the considerable commitment of our doctors at the Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem. Since 1990, almost 90 thousand children have been born in our facility which, even during all the lockdowns imposed in the region, has continued to treat pregnant women and infants in intensive care. The Holy Family is the only hospital in the region capable of treating premature babies or those with serious congenital diseases thanks to its modern neonatal intensive care unit. The hospital’s mobile clinics also play an essential role, regularly visiting desert areas around Bethlehem. In recent months, at the request of the Palestinian Ministry of Health, the area served has further expanded.
Protecting the rights of minorities remains an imperative at a time when the logic of power, nationalism and populism is growing at the expense of the logic of dialogue. We people of peace are called to make our voice heard to safeguard the rights of all and of all minorities, the respect for human dignity, international cooperation and solidarity. This is precisely the spirit in which Malteser International is developing its projects in Bangladesh to protect the Rohingya minority, subjected to discrimination and persecution for years. Its action focuses on mother-child health, hygiene, nutrition and psychosocial support.
As you know, the Order of Malta pays great attention to the environmental emergency. We are all aware of the events of recent months, with the continuous fires in Australia and the Hurricanes Eta and Iota that devastated Central America, and in particular Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, at the end of last year. The rise in sea–water levels threatens to make islands and entire nations disappear. Environmental degradation is a health hazard that threatens people’s livelihoods and worsens the quality of life. Entire populations are forced to leave their lands, not only because of conflicts, but also because weather conditions make life extremely difficult if not impossible. As Pope Francis warned in his Encyclical Laudato sì, climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods and the Order of Malta is supporting several projects in this context. For example, in northern Uganda, where the Order of Malta’s international relief agency has promoted zero-emission construction through the production of high-quality panels made from rice straw, a waste product. These environmental protection measures also create new jobs for South Sudanese refugees and the local community. In India, Malteser International has implemented a project for improving food security and accelerating the drought resilience of disadvantaged communities in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, leading to a significant reduction in migration rates.
In these days, so deeply marked by the crisis caused by the pandemic, my thoughts turn to the migrant emergency in the Balkans. After the huge fire that ravaged the temporary refugee camp in Lipa in north-west Bosnia in recent days, a tragedy is unfolding in the Balkan route. Thousands of people are crammed into improvised, overcrowded, and inadequate refugee camps. There is a lack of essential services and hygienic conditions are very poor. Many migrants are forced to live in the cold with temperatures now below zero. Fleeing war and poverty, these people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, – heading for Northern Europe – are now in a sort of “limbo”, without humanitarian assistance, victims of those rejection policies which in recent years have only created disasters.
It is not acceptable that these poor people are exploited and ill-treated in order to discourage other people to migrate.
The Order of Malta strongly reiterates the need to develop an admission and asylum strategy that focuses on respect for human dignity and human rights. We believe that a collective stance and an immediate institutional initiative are needed to save these people and to define common rules for the European countries that must manage migratory flows. We have been saying it for years: migration is a global phenomenon that requires a coordinated and transnational approach.
In recent years, the Sovereign Order of Malta has focused its action on assisting migrants in the countries of origin, transit, and destination and on the fight against human trafficking. An odious phenomenon, the latter, in which international crime is heavily involved. The issue of migration is also closely linked to the criminal phenomenon of modern slavery, with the poorest regions of Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and South East Asia being the most affected. The pandemic crisis has further aggravated the situation: travel restrictions, the closing of borders and the reduction of public and social services are all factors that increase the vulnerability of human trafficking victims, exposing them to forced labour, forced marriages, forced motherhood, sale of children, prostitution, compulsion to crime and forced removal of organs. For several years the Order of Malta has been working on this front with two ambassadors at large – in Geneva and Lagos – to raise public awareness on the subject of human trafficking and combat this inhumane phenomenon.
Migration remains one of the Order of Malta’s main concerns, both at the diplomatic level and at that of rescue operations at sea, assistance, integration of refugees and migrants. Thousands of migrants in the world die every year during their journey, many of them drowned in the Mediterranean and it is urgent to manage and coordinate these large migratory flows. The Grand Chancellor recently signed an agreement with the Italian Minister of Transport, renewing the presence of the Order’s Italian Relief Corps’ doctors on the Italian Coast Guard’s vessels for first assistance to emigrants rescued at sea. An activity which extends bilateral cooperation for the protection of human lives at sea and further strengthens the international agreement of 1991 between the Italian Republic and the Sovereign Order of Malta on assistance in serious emergencies caused by natural or man-made disasters.
2020 was also an important year for our Italian Relief Corps (CISOM) which celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Last year’s bilateral diplomatic activity has naturally suffered the effects of the pandemic but there are many significant moments that deserve to be mentioned here, such as the official visit last January of Grand Master Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre to Benin, where Ordre de Malte France manages the regional hospital in Djougou; the visit of the Presidents of the Republic of Malta and Hungary in February; the establishment of diplomatic relations with Estonia in March; the ratification of Cooperation Agreements with Armenia, Panama and Ukraine and the appointment in December of the Order’s permanent observer to the International Centre for Studies for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ICCROM) based in Rome.
A significant example of our multilateral diplomacy concerns freedom of religion. The Order was invited to be an observer to the “International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance” (IRFBA), a group of some 30 countries set up last February by the U.S. Department of State and committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief around the world. On 17 November, the Grand Chancellor participated in the organisation’s online ministerial meeting and reiterated the Order’s commitment to promoting freedom of religion and facilitating dialogue and understanding between religions.
The presentation of the document “Religions in Action“, on which we have long worked with a select group of religious experts, Christians and Muslims, was postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic. This document contains principles and guidelines on the role that religious communities and faith-based institutions can play in helping to resolve crisis situations, mitigating their effects on the populations concerned and improving the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid.
Your Excellencies, dear Ambassadors, I did not expect to be elected as Lieutenant of the Grand Master on 8 November. I accepted this appointment in a spirit of service, promising to devote myself entirely to this high office, aware of the responsibilities that this position entails, albeit only for a year. As I said in my speech immediately after the election, the reform of the Constitutional Charter and the Code are at the heart of my commitment.
I aim to convene an extraordinary Chapter General which will have the task of approving the reform by the end of my term of office. Fundamental changes regard the Order’s First Class and need to update the rules governing the life of the religious of the Order to the latest revision of the Code of Canon Law which dates back to 1983. Other important aspects to be reformed are the requirements for the eligibility of the Grand Master and the improvement in the Order’s government and regional structures.
To conclude, I would like to remember the founder of our Order, Blessed Fra’ Gerard who, in Jerusalem in the eleventh century, established the first hospital for pilgrims arriving in the Holy Land, but which also offered treatment to residents of other faiths, something extraordinary for the time. In 2020, the Order of Malta celebrated worldwide the anniversary of nine centuries since his death. I assure you that his teaching and example are more alive than ever in the Order of Malta’s members.
In thanking the ambassadors accredited to the Sovereign Order of Malta for the valuable contribution they make every day in promoting the shared values of peace, humanity and help to people in need, I sincerely hope that 2021 will bring new hope for peace and a brighter future to all of us and to the world.