International Ministries

When Africa Sneezes-Italy Catches a Cold

March 9, 2011 Journal
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It is often said “America sneezes and the world catches a cold” to stress the growing interconnectedness of the international community and the preeminence of America’s influence around the world.  The same thing is true on a regional scale between Africa and Italy. 

The southernmost part of Italy is an island named Lampedusa.  This Italian island is closer to the coast of North Africa than to the coast of Italy, just 70 miles from Tunisia.   When refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East want to get to Europe, they often head for Lampedusa, coming through Libya.   From Lampedusa they continue to the Italian mainland.  The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made an initial secret deal with Gadhafi to return refugees to Libya without considering their application for asylum.  Libya is not a party to the United Nations Refugee Convention, has no asylum system in place, and has a history of imprisoning and abusing refugees.  This deal was part of a larger agreement whereby Italy would invest $5 billion dollars in Libya.  Needless to say, the “deal” is off; Gadhafi can no longer keep up his end of the bargain.  That is all history now.

Fast forward to the present.  As a result of the revolution in Tunisia, 5,500 Tunisians have landed in Lampedusa.  Why did they come?  Some were fleeing the unrest or feared retribution, and some simply saw an opportune moment to make their way to Europe.  Regardless of why they came, they are here.  They need food, clothing, healthcare, and housing.  And, in accordance with international law, they need to have their cases reviewed if they choose to apply for asylum because they fear persecution in their homeland.  They are in Italy now, and Italy is responsible for them.  This is the present.

Fast forward to the future: Libya.  As the situation deteriorates, how many Libyans will flee to Italy?  Estimates range from 300,000 to 1,500,000.  Evangelical Christians in Italy, of course, are asking:  What is our role in this?  How can we bring the love of God and the values of God’s people to bear on this developing situation?  In other words:  What opportunity is there in all of this for us to act like Christians?  The Baptist Union with whom we work is part of a larger protestant group called the Federation of Evangelical Churches in Italy (FCEI). They are already beginning to educate and encourage churches to meet this challenge.  They celebrate the good things that could come out of this for people in North Africa and the Middle East.  But they acknowledge the dislocation and hardship this transition inevitably brings.  They are reminding us of our responsibility as believers.  They keep using the words accogliere (to welcome) and proteggere (to protect).  These are very Christian words.  They are at the heart of the Hebrew Law and the Gospel.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.  He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.  And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, (Matthew 25:35)

The Italians with whom we work are taking these passages seriously, literally, enthusiastically.  They see in these new arrivals to their land an opportunity to act like Christians, to bring the Kingdom of God a bit closer.  Pray for our Italian brothers and sisters as they face up to this enormous task.  Pray for those who have come and for those who will come.

Africa sneezes and Italy catches a cold.  But Italian Christians are getting ready to care for those who will come.  We’ll keep you posted.