Covering Religion Sun, 10 Feb 2013 06:57:54 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Relics in New York City Sun, 13 May 2012 22:53:38 +0000 Raya Jalabi By Raya Jalabi

Many have considered relics to be a curiosity of another era, a time before scientific and industrial revolutions had come to the fore and challenged the more antiquated conceptions of magic and mysticism. But in today’s world, one rife with a rigorously rationalist approach to life, the mysticism of relics still holds an appeal for a wide array of Christians, namely Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

A relic is an object, preferably a part of the body or clothes, which remains a memorial of a departed saint. According to Roman Catholic Canon Law, there are three classes of relic: first-class relics are items directly associated with the physical remains of a Saint, e.g. a bone or hair; second-class relics are items which came into physical contact with a saint, e.g. a piece of clothing or a rosary; and third-class relics are objects which were touched and blessed by a first or second-class relic.

Relics are associated with many other religious traditions, other than Christianity, most notably in Buddhism and Islam. But early Christianity’s development in a polytheistic society, created a particular position for relics within the initial manifestation of the faith, something which has carried on to today’s Catholic practices.

However, relics aren’t relegated to ancient seats of early Christianity, like Rome. Come a little closer to home and you might be surprised. New York, a city with a rich and diverse religious history, has a surprising number of relics, strewn at various places of Catholic worship in town. This slideshow focuses on four different places, important to local Catholics — three shrines dedicated to recently canonized saints, and a church: Transfiguration Church in Chinatown, the Shrine of Mother Seton in Battery Park, the shrine of Padre Pio in midtown and the shrine of Mother Cabrini in Fort Washington.

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For Italian Catholics, a different debate over ‘choice’ Sun, 13 May 2012 15:16:12 +0000 Michael Wilner By Michael Wilner

A pharmacy across the street from Vatican City in Rome, Italy. | Photo by Michael Wilner.

ROME  — It may be the last empire in the world on which the sun never sets: the Catholic Church, a kingdom full of believers and skeptics alike, with its one billion followers strewn across the globe. With such reach and untold wealth, it might seem ill-advised to question its influence. But walk across the street from its seat of power, where the spiritual bloodline of St. Peter lives and prays, and you will find a direct challenge to that influence at the most unusual of places: a local pharmacy.

This particular farmacia, a stone’s throw from the Vatican, meets Italian standards of Western medicine. Walk through its glass sliding doors to find four women working behind the counter, routinely opening drawers full of drugs for a constant line of customers. Condoms and birth control pills sit available in these cabinets, which line an entire wall in the back. And when all their doors are closed, the wall unifies into an expansive, clinically sketched and deeply ironic black-on-white depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica.

“If a woman has a prescription, we are required to fill it by law,” Alessandro Leone, the head doctor at the pharmacy on Via di Porta Cavalleggeri in Rome, says of birth control pills. “The Vatican has their opinion, but it’s their opinion. We have ours.”

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has made that opinion loud and clear for decades: birth control, abortion and every form of contraception in between are “fruits of the same tree.” These practices undermine the sanctity of human life, it says, outlined succinctly in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical called Humanae Vitae released in 1968.

But casting this policy as winning politics in Western countries has proven an uphill battle — until very recently, when the Church subtly recast its message.

In the United States earlier this year, President Barack Obama’s health care law challenged Catholic-affiliated institutions that receive government funding to provide birth control. And in Italy, older such laws over pharmacies and hospitals, in arm’s reach of the Vatican, constrict doctrine with similar force.

With unique precision, and in a notable shift, the Catholic Church made a remarkable decision in its face-off with the Obama Administration: not to defend its stance on controlled reproduction based on its merits, but rather to cite “religious freedom” as its principal argument.

“As Catholics, we are obliged to defend the right to religious liberty for ourselves and for others,” reads a statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, titled Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, published earlier this month. “If religious liberty is eroded here at home, American defense of religious liberty abroad is less credible.”

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, said in an interview here that Pope Benedict XVI has followed the American debate from a distance, and noted that Catholics are not the only people who object to reproductive control. But after abortion passed into law in Italy in 1978 — just five years after a Supreme Court ruling made it legal in the United States — numerous prominent Italian bishops made public statements threatening clinicians who perform the deed with excommunication. They also emphasized a unique provision within the Italian law as an alternative: Article 9, which reserves the right of medical practitioners to refuse involvement in the procedure based on objections of moral conscience.

That same tactic is being used today in the debate over birth control in the U.S., where an ancient Judeo-Christian concept — freedom — has become core to the debate. And in taking a stance rooted in democratic ideals, the Vatican may have finally found a way to sell its policies — at least on the political realm.

Meanwhile, condoms, contraceptive jellies and the morning-after pill sell briskly from the pharmacy across the street.

The Uncomfortable Norm

Abortion has become so commonplace in Italy that women often speak about it openly.

Alessandra* recalled being 23 years old and going to a hospital in Milan for an abortion. It was 1989 and she expected it to be routine, given how common the procedure had become. That year in the Lombardy region of Italy, where Milan is located, one in four pregnancies ended in abortion—just above the national average, according to a Guttmacher Institute study from 1996.

But Alessandra’s doctor, who objected based on moral grounds, turned her away.

“For her it was murder,” she said of her doctor.

So Alessandra went to another facility where the doctors were willing, if not exactly welcoming. These new doctors were unhappy to be a part of what she describes an “unpleasant experience” for all involved. But the event that Alessandra found particularly humiliating came after her initial exams, as she awaited the procedure in the hallway of the clinic. Anxious and alone, with her parents in the dark, she watched as protesters raided the hall waiving plastic fetuses in the air. She remembers a dozen of them shouting murder. Alessandra felt implicated.

“The decision is not an easy one,” she says. Alessandra grew up half-Catholic, and had struggled with her relationship in the Church as an Italian woman. “When you are there for the surgery, you really don’t want to change your mind.”

In a country where nine in ten citizens nominally identify as Catholic, Alessandra is one of many Italian women that have been thrown into a complicated, and often contradictory, national debate. Codified in Italian law since 1981 is the right of its women to receive an abortion within 90 days of conception, without questions and free of charge. Women can buy birth control and fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill at their local pharmacy, and by law, these pharmacies are required to acquiesce.

And many Catholic doctors have chosen to exercise their right to refuse. One of the largest hospitals in southern Italy tacitly compels all of its doctors to sign Article 9 paperwork along with employment documents, and accordingly, every doctor at the facility objects to performing abortions. Casa Sollievo Della Sofferenza, a marble-lined hospital founded on the highest hill in San Giovanni Rotondo by Saint Pio of Pietrelcina himself, considers “the centrality of man and the protection of life, from inception to natural death,” to be its paramount values.

“For private hospitals like ours, the state does not place any binding restrictions,” says Domenico Crupi, the vice president and general director of the hospital. “Public hospitals are obliged to guarantee a public service. But in the end, Italian hospitals have, thank God, a certain autonomy, and that autonomy is respected.”

And yet in the Puglia region of Italy, where Casa Sollievo is located, the abortion rate stood at 21.4 percent as recently as 2008 — the country’s highest, according to reports from Italy’s Institute of National Statistics.

A Declaration of Conscience

While Casa Sollievo has institutionalized the practice, most doctors who sign Article 9 do so after a good deal of soul-searching.

At a small clinic on the outskirts of Rome, Emanuela Santuccia, a gynecologist by training, adjusts the diamond cross on her neckline. She is having trouble pinpointing the moment  that she found her religion. All she knows is that, over a period of time, a force or presence in her life ultimately drove her to make her faith and her life’s work coherent.

“I’m an objector of conscience,” Santuccia declares.

As a doctor at a public hospital, Santuccia was often faced with women who needed her to sign off on their abortions. And in her training, she had to actively participate in the surgical process.

Santuccia felt the process was normal at first, as it was widely accepted. She had grown up in a Catholic family —“not too observant, but with a specific idea of religion,” she says — but she never felt a particular affiliation with the God, or with his Church.

It took several years, which she describes as a personal journey. But Santuccia ultimately made a choice.

“At the emotional level, it is challenging to deal with the problems of women,” she explains. “Sometimes you feel powerless.”

Santuccia signed Article 9 paperwork, giving her coworker double the workload in an attempt to clear her conscience and find a way back into the Church. In doing so, she joined 70 percent of Italian gynecologists who now object, the Italian Ministry of Health reports—a number that has been rising over the past decade.

“There’s a difference between professional ethics and private conscious,” says Frank Chervenak, director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital and an honorary member of the Italian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “A doctor who has a moral objection to abortion shouldn’t be forced to perform it, whether it’s [in] Italy or the United States.”

Chervenak, himself a practicing Catholic, notes perhaps one of the strangest Italian contradictions of all: the current rise in “objectors” coinciding with a decline in the Italian birth rate, to below replacement levels.

“The sad truth is that many in Italy don’t practice all of the tenets of the Catholic Church,” he says.

One possibility is that objectors consider abortion a red line, but perceive other contraceptives, such as condoms and birth control, as acceptable, or even beneficial. Santuccia takes this view, and encourages her patients to protect themselves against unwanted, preventable circumstances they may regret for the rest of their lives.

Given that many Catholic doctors like Santuccia are giving such advice, it is perhaps not surprising that condoms and other contraceptive aids are selling so briskly today – in clear sight of the Vatican itself.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

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Fighting the Good Fight: Profile of an Evangelical Missionary in Italy Sat, 12 May 2012 06:35:19 +0000 Sarah Laing By Sarah Laing 

A lighted cross.

A lighted cross.

ROME: A few blocks away from Rome’s central railway station, a man pauses outside a tiny, nondescript storefront. Not a lot is visible through the windows, and a passerby has to look carefully to notice the faded signage, which reads “CLC Ministries”.

“We had our first meetings in here,” he said. “When we first arrived in Italy, my wife’s purse was stolen, which had her Bible in it. We came here to buy another one, and the store manager turned into one of our closest friends.”

This man is Brent Harrell, a Protestant Evangelical missionary working in Italy. He counts that meeting as part of a long series of “divine appointments” that have led an American evangelical to spend 12 years attempting to missionize the world’s most Catholic country.

Harrell is back at the bookstore today to buy more Bibles to replenish the supply at the church he established in a suburb far from the city centre. He doesn’t have a great deal of money to spend, and so spends several minutes contemplating the various options — hard or soft cover, various translations. He confers with the young shop assistant, speaking Italian, that while fluent, could never be mistaken for a native’s, and still bears the rhythmic stamp of a mid-western American drawl.

After he’s chosen his Bibles, he spends a little time browsing in the two-shelf section for “bambini” picking out Biblically-themed coloring books for the Sunday school. In the store — barely 10 feet across — books fill all the available space, volumes about “Gli Ultimi Tempi” (The End Times) and “Battaglia Spirituale” (Spiritual Warfare) sitting alongside Italian translations of Christian literature heavyweights like Billy Graham and Max Lucado. There’s a tiny multimedia section, which prominently features VHS copies of a 1980’s concert tour by Italy’s only evangelical folk singer.

Harrell doesn’t visit the store often, as it’s a long way from the outer suburb where he ultimately “planted” his church, Calvary Chapel Roma. But this area of central Rome is where he and his wife worked until 2009, doing everything from street evangelism to working with students on the nearby university campus.

“We would meet in this bookstore, clear out everything from the middle, and pray together — and not even fill this space,” said Harrell.

“Now we have a church of 50 people — which is actually pretty large for an evangelical church in Italy.”

In person, Harrell has an intense manner, maintaining constant eye contact from beneath a black baseball cap.

“Italy is the greatest missed mission field in the world,” he said, swiftly downing a thimble-sized cup of strong espresso at a cafe nearby.

“If Jesus were to return today, only about 500,000 people in Italy would be raptured with him,” he said, referring to a belief held by many evangelicals that “true” Christians will be taken to heaven at the end of the world.

And as for the rest of Italy’s 60 million citizens — 90 percent of which are Catholic? According to Harrell, they will not be counted among the true believers when the last trump resounds.

“Catholicism is a counterfeit cult, a heretical sect, a demonic lie,” he said. “It’s an oppressive system that is so far from what Christ intended.”

“Instead, it’s all been built on a man name Peter,” he said, referring to the disciple whom Catholics consider the first pope.

Of course, the Catholic Church would disagree with Harrell’s assertion. Their official line is that while the Pope is the ultimate authority on earth, he is also the ultimate servant, living a life of obedience that points followers to God. In conversation, Harrell also refers frequently to the supreme authority of the Bible on all matters. This is another major point of difference with Catholic teaching, which assigns equal weight to “church traditions,” beliefs that are not found in the Biblical canon, such as prayer for the dead and the liturgy. (Interestingly, an appreciation for those traditions is often cited as a significant motivator for conversion to Catholicism by Protestants.)

Harrell is unabashed in his opposition to the Catholic church. In fact, it was his conviction of Catholicism’s enslaving power that spurred him to leave Boise, Idaho and come to evangelise the “lost” in Italy.

“God sowed it into my heart how desperate the situation was here. You have this country that is 99.9 percent Catholic, but has no concept of personal intimacy with God,” he said.

Harrell grew up in an evangelical Christian family, and eventually attended Bible college in order to pursue full-time ministry. He first became passionate about Italy after a brief summer mission trip in 1985.

“There was a man in the Venetto region who had been a Catholic, but was then saved. He wanted to start an evangelical church in the north,” said Harrell, who went to Venetto to help with three other American missionaries.

“I remember him saying that to be Italian is to be Catholic — and it’s got nothing to do with God,” he said.

That level of cultural entrenchment proved to be one of the greatest obstacles Harrell and his wife faced when they moved to Italy three years later in 1999.

“People would say to me ‘I’m atheist, but I’m still a Catholic’ ,” he said. “It’s part of their identity, and the indoctrination is deep seated.”

The Harrells arrived in Rome with no plan, no Italian and just one contact. When he speaks of this time, Harrell compares himself to Abraham, who was called by God but with no idea of where his faith might take him.

After working in Rome’s center, that faith took Harrell and his family (which now includes three children) to the outskirts of the city, to a suburb known for drug dealers and poverty. There they started a church, which was affiliated with Calvary Chapel, an American evangelical fellowship that sponsored the Harrells’ mission work.

Just 0.1 percent of Italy’s of population identifies as “evangelical,” and are separate entities to the country’s mainline Protestant churches, which evangelicals widely consider to be only slightly better than Catholicism. Harrell knows of about 150 “Bible-believing” churches in Italy, most averaging around 20 members.

“We’re cushioned from it a little in a big city like Rome, but in these smaller villages, when evangelicals arrive, it’s like the wicked witch coming to town,” said Harrell with a rare laugh.

“They’ve been taught for so long that you cannot be saved outside the Catholic church. They steer clear of us.”

This distrust surprised the Harrells, who found most Italians to be a lot less open than movie stereotypes would suggest.

“They’re superficially friendly, but they are actually very sceptical and critical, and take a long time to open up,” he said. “It’s an ancient culture, very slow to change.”

“Slow” is also how Harrell describes his conversion rate, a process which he likens to a farmer cultivating a field, with a long interval of waiting between sowing and harvesting. Large events like tent revivals would not work in Italy, said Harrell, who prefers to focus on building relationships.

“There’s a woman who attends our church now who also had a child in my daughter’s class. We would just talk casually about our beliefs, and finally a year later she was saved,” said Harrell.

According to Harrell, the conversion process is actually hardest for those who have been practicing Catholics (which is about 30 percent of Italians).

“There was an older woman who would come to our church, and be in tears every Sunday she was so moved. But she also kept going to Mass — that guilt is a hard thing to get rid of,” said Harrell.

When explaining his take on the gospel to Catholics, Harrell often quotes John 3:16, which in the New International Version translation reads: “For God so loved the world he gave his one and only son so that all men might be saved”.

“It shows how much God loves all people, and how he desires them to have the free gift of eternal life,” said Harrell. His explanation of the christian faith heavily emphasises the idea of grace, rather than “works” to obtain salvation.

“No Catholic will ever say they are going to heaven for sure. They can’t be certain they’ve earned it yet,” said Harrell, who repeatedly asserts the simplicity of the ideas he preaches.

Along with abandoning some fundamental beliefs about the way to eternal life, a Catholic converting into Harrell’s church has to give up something dear to many Italian hearts: praying to the Virgin Mary.

“They’re taught that God is this stern father, and Mary is a nurturing mother, almost a co-redemptress with Christ,” said Harrell.

“But I always say to them – if Obama was your father, and could give you anything, why would you go through some other intermediary to talk to him? It’s the same thing with God.”

Harrell and his family are in Italy on missionary visas, which he calls “a miracle,” given what he sees as the Italian institutionalised suspicion of non-Catholics. While they haven’t faced significant personal hostility, he mentions “subtle persecution,” particularly when dealing with bureaucracy.

“We run into roadblocks, like lost paper work. And we have sub-par status to the Catholic Church, since we are only considered a non-profit organisation.”

Still, Harrell is sanguine about these perceived difficulties.

“Christ told us that we would be hated and suffer for him,” he said. “Whether we reach millions or just a few, I’ll keep following Jesus”.

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The nuns of Rome Fri, 11 May 2012 19:39:46 +0000 Andrea Palatnik By Andrea Palatnik

If you plan a trip to Rome, chances are your must-see list will include well-known attractions like the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain or the Vatican Museum.

There is, however, a more ubiquitous staple of the eternal city that does not feature in any city guide but will certainly catch your attention while you’re there: nuns. There are hundreds of them, maybe thousands of them, walking around Rome’s cobblestone streets, their kind eyes wandering around in marvel like a soccer fan visiting Wembley stadium in England or Camp Nou in Spain.

They come from all over the world and all over Italy; though the “locals” live in centuries-old convents and monasteries surrounded by blooming gardens. It doesn’t matter, though: when in Rome they all feel at home.

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A lay community aids the Roma of Rome Fri, 11 May 2012 07:44:38 +0000 Mohora Bogdan By Bogdan Mohora 

Click here to read more about Sant’Egidio and the Roma in Rome.


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Outside the camps: Helping the Roma in Rome Fri, 11 May 2012 07:37:49 +0000 Neha Prakash By Neha Prakash 

Multimedia by Bogdan Mohora

Mira Kostich, Zoran's aunt, and her daughter Dana. Mira holds an icon of Saint Nicholas who is the patron saint of Italy and highly venerated in the Eastern Orthodox faith. | Photo by Bogdan Mohora

ROME — Claudio Betti weaves through a throng of people, both young and old, who have gathered  outside an old Catholic convent  in the Trastevere section of this ancient city. Traces of different languages — Italian, Romanian, Serbian — blend into nondescript words, ultimately drowned out by the nearby street noise.  The people come from many different places but they all are united under the title of Roma, popularly known as gypsies. Here in Rome, as elsewhere in Europe, they are among the poorest of the poor.

Pausing every few steps, Betti struggles to ultimately reach the door. He greets almost each person by name — like a party host making small talk with friends he has lost touch with and ushering others inside his home.

Betti knows many things about these Roma — their age, medical conditions and family members’ names — personal things he easily spouts off when questioned.

Betti reaches Daniel, a boy in his gawky and shy pre-adolescent days. Daniel’s hooded eyes immediately perk up when Betti vigorously shakes his hand and questions him about playing football.

Daniel’s aunt, Shafika, stands smiling a toothless grin. She has raised Daniel for years since his parents abandoned him because they had no way to support him. Shafika took him in despite being severely ill with cancer. Without any form of health care and fear of their illegal status, Daniel had to watch his aunt grow increasingly sick and fragile, until the members of Sant’Egidio welcomed her to their center.

Now, Daniel and his aunt, along with 14 others, live in an apartment above the Comunita di Sant’Egidio receiving free and constant medical care from doctors and Sant’Egidio members who have volunteered their time and resources to care for the Roma and other of Italy’s needy.

For the volunteers, it is the Gospel calling them to help the poor and downtrodden. And for Daniel and Shafika, and the hundreds of other Roma — many illegal, and all poor — who come to Trastevere, the Catholic lay organization of Sant’Egidio is one of the few places in Rome where being Roma does not matter.

It is a place where Betti — the assistant president and a founding member of Sant’Egidio, a born and raised Italian citizen and a devout Catholic — can befriend a group of people who are historically Italy’s most marginalized, hated, victimized and poor neighbors, no matter their religion or immigration status.

Sant’Egidio provides common grounds for the Roma despite even religious differences. Here, some are Catholic, Orthodox and others Muslim, but it does not matter to the Roma and matters even less to Betti.

“These are poor people, and the Gospel calls us to be close to the poor,” Betti says. “Once you become friends you discover very clearly there is no difference.” Betti acknowledges what every Italian seems to know, that the Roma are often involved in crimes, ranging from pickpocketing to organized theft. But he is sympathetic to their plight. “In the conditions they are living I would do exactly the same. If you live in a shantytown all your life and you have no possibility of [improvement], I would steal. Anyone of us would.”

“But this is something that doesn’t touch the ordinary mind of a person,” Betti says. “They think all the gypsies steal, they all are criminals, and many of them are, but they have never been given any other option. So I think this is one of the reasons why we work with them.

“They are our friends,” he says.


The movement began in 1968, when a group of teenage boys banded together to not just speak God’s word but to live God’s work. Sant’Egidio’s mission stems from the parable of the Good Samaritan emphasizing the commandment to “love thy neighbor,” especially the most harmed and helpless of neighbors. The high schoolers declared themselves “protectors of the weak,” and in the past four decades have taken their message and movement to include 40,000 members, spanning 60 countries on four different continents. In 1971, the community settled into the convent in Trastevere.

Fifteen years ago, the community members created a community center, housed in a building apart from the original Trastevere convent, where the poor could come to find solace. On Mondays, the center welcomes immigrants; on Tuesdays, the Italian homeless are invited in; and each Friday, Sant’Egidio opens its doors to about 200 Roma to receive food, clothing, showers, legal aid and medical care. The center is staffed fully by volunteers from the Sant’Egidio community and financially sustained through donations and sponsors.

A few blocks away from the center, sits the Church of Santa Maria where Sant’Egidio holds religious services. Every Monday night it offers vespers for its members and visitors. But the religious life of the community is kept separate from the social service effort. None of the Roma who come for help are asked to join the prayers.

“If they want to pray, we organize prayers, but we would never ask a Muslim to pray like a Christian,” Betti says. “People join the community not because they are helped by the community, but because they desire to be part of it from the heart, not because they owe it to us because we give them money.

“It would be very bad,” he says. “Jesus never bought anybody.”


In 2008, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni — a member of the populist Northern League known widely for their blatant xenophobia and anti-immigration policies — moved to close the 167 Roma camps around Italy. By 2010, Rome’s city officials had prepared 12 camps, or “villages” as city officials called them, on the outskirts of Rome to become home to the 6,000 to 8,000 gypsies, who had previously lived within city boundaries.

Maroni and Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, claimed the illegal camps scattered throughout the city fostered squalid conditions and that the new villages would provide better sources of running water and electricity and would overall minimize risk of public violence against them.

Many of the Roma who now frequent Sant’Egidio are now forced to travel from their new encampments in places like Ardea — a suburb an hour outside the city — for their social services because the villages provide even less resources and more neglect than ever before.

Approximately 1,500 gypsies live in this Ardea camp, the largest government-made Roma village near Rome.  Chain link fences surround the territory creating a distinct boundary between Roma and Italian — not dissimilar from the borders between feuding countries.

Trash cascades from dumpsters and pools on the ground nearby. Laundry hangs from multicolor clothespins on cables and washing machines sit outdoors accompanying propane tanks. Puppies run back and forth chasing children and loose trash tumbling through paved roads. Boxy caravans form zigzag rows for what seems like miles.

View a slideshow of photos about life in the camps and Roma families. Click on photos for captions. | Photos by Bogdan Mohora

The rows of caravans are separated by wrought-iron fences and lay in three sections —the first section houses the Catholic Roma, in the second the Orthodox, and in the third section the Muslim. Much unlike Sant’Egidio where religion comes secondary and resources come first, in this camp, the Roma have aligned themselves on ethnic and religious lines as a way to protect and distribute the minimal resources they receive from the government.

Among the trailers is one where Mira Kostich, an Orthodox woman, and her two daughters live.  The couch on which one of her daughter’s lays sprawled and sleeping juts awkwardly into the entrance space. Kostich’s other daughter Dana runs circles outside, like a dog freed from its unfit cage.

Kostich stands in her shoebox kitchen, a cross hangs from the wall that is covered in rose wallpaper. She is the mother of two, and like all mothers, she finds herself sacrificing things for the betterment of her children.

But this evening Mira had to be selfish.

Because she showered that evening, her daughter did not have enough water to wash herself.

“Life in the camps is atrocious… it’s a bit like the concentration camps in the Holocaust,” says Ian (Xulaj) Hancock, the representative to the United Nations and UNICEF for the Romani people. “People are scrambling for anything they can get. Any type of group loyalty takes second place; the main concern becomes family. And religious differences are exacerbated by the situation.”

Dragan, a community leader and activist within the Roma camp, and an Orthodox Roma, says his family was split up when they were forced to leave Rome (many Roma have several generations living together). Since coming to the camps, he has been trying to contact Amnesty International to help deal with the significant lack of resources, mainly water and electricity, offered to the people within the government encampments.

The Roma also find transportation to and from the camps difficult — the nearest bus stop is 5 kilometers away, and even there, the bus rarely stops to pick up Roma, Dragan says. Because of this, Dragan has created a system for purchasing groceries where his family members often buy food in bulk to resell to other camp members who can’t make it to the city to purchase certain items.

But it is the violence between the different religions Dragan finds most alarming and dangerous for the families living within the camps. Dragan says tensions grow so rapidly within the camps that often squabbles over water will quickly turn into 500-person gang fights involving Roma from other camps as well.

Dragan says when everyone lived in Rome he and the other Orthodox “elders” had good relations and a mutual understanding with the Muslim elders, and this violence was never a concern. He blames the new violence on the younger Muslim generations in the new camps trying to assert some power or dominion over the land and resources.

Betti assigns these violent struggles not to any type of religious bigotry between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic Roma, but more so a battle of necessity — and ultimately, he says, the fault rests at the feet of the Italian government which has segregated the Roma in the camps.

“These people have been interreligious, interethnic and without borders forever,” Betti says. “They have lived with their neighbors and they have not had issues of religion [in the past]. We are creating those issues.”

“They have created a situation of extreme need,” Betti says of the Italian government. “You will not find two families that will say they don’t have issues with each other. When you have to survive the crisis, you tend to protect what you have, and what you can eventually get…the territory, and you can get violent in that.”

“The war between the poor is always worse than the war between the rich,” he says.

And this war is manifesting itself in several stereotypes within and outside the camps’ lines. Zoran Maksimovic, an Orthodox Roma, used to live in the camps, but moved his family to a home outside the encampment because of the increasing violence. Maksimovic says when living in the camp, his children began getting involved with crimes and drugs. The problem, Maksimovic says, was instigated only by the Muslim Roma in the camps.

One day this past spring, Maksimovic returns to visit his other family members who remain in the camps. As he walks through the Orthodox section of the camp, introducing many onlookers as cousins or aunts and uncles, he stops to point out the Muslim section just visible through the slits in the fence.

“Only their side of the camp has all that,” he says, pointing to graffiti and trash. He defiantly disregards the similar conditions on his side of the fence.

It seems that even here, within the marginalized, there exists a marginalized. That a group surrounded by hatred, ostracism and violence, has breed an incestual prejudice of their own.


Cismic Cassim exists just beyond the fence that Maksimovic previously pointed out. Cassim is a Muslim Roma and acts as another community leader within this camp. He says the problem is not religious and stems from a density of people in the area who can easily involve other family members in the smallest of matters.

“The Rom population, we are different cultures, but in between us, the population Rom, there is total respect,” Cassim says.

Sant’Egidio — often noted for its facilitating of peace talks and dialogues throughout the world — has not stepped in within the camps to help ease any ethnic or religious uprisings. Betti said conflict resolution is this situation would bring about minimal impact, because there needs to be a much larger paradigm shift in the attitude toward the Roma on the outside as well as a betterment in their overall circumstances before the Roma within the camps can stop feuding themselves.

Though Sant’Egidio hasn’t interceded in any official capacity, Dragan said they were previously a large help in arranging meetings with various Italian institutions to discuss the future of the camps. Dragan was currently preparing to meet with a member of Rome’s mayoral office to discuss the Roma’s desire to build another camp in Ardea, which would allow the Orthodox and Muslims to be separated and stop competing for limited resources.

Rome’s Mayoral office did not respond for comment on their willingness to build another camp.


Sant’Egidio, though it is not working to provide conflict resolution, has concerned itself with simply bringing the Roma the basic necessities given to all Italian residents.

“Forcing people to live in conditions as animals in a Western European country is a breach of human rights,” Betti says.

Previously, Sant’Egidio traveled to the camps to provide schooling for Rom children, legal care and even used a caravan to transport medical equipment to tend to the sick in their own homes. Maksimovic noted that Sant’Egidio educated almost all of his children and he feels a great respect for them despite their religious differences.

After realizing the quickly and exponentially expanding needs of the Rome people in the camps, Sant’Egidio brought the resources, community volunteers and Rom together in a centralized location in Trastevere, Rome. The center allowed numerous other facilities that Sant’Egidio couldn’t provide by traveling to the camps. (Sant’Egidio still travels to camps in cities other than Rome, where it would be impossible for the Roma to travel to the center located far away.)

Today, the visitors browse through racks of clothing and shelves of shoes, launder their clothes and pick up bags of pasta and cheese at no cost.

The only requirement Sant’Egidio places on the services is that the Roma register in their system.

The registration cards, Betti says, provide some of the only documentation many of these people will ever have, since several are illegal citizens of Rome. The cards show simple details like birthdays and small photos, and come as a welcome respite from the fingerprinting the government began requiring of the Roma years earlier to help identify them. Betti adds since Sant’Egidio has the largest database of the Roma in the city (the actual computers containing the information are hidden from the Italian government for the protection of the Roma, Betti says), police often turn to him and the other community members for help when identifying dead bodies of Roma or suspected Roma criminals.

The services at Sant’Egidio are plentiful, but not exhaustive; the center turns away many medical patients each week because of limited supplies. Food bags are limited to one per person — children can receive supplies but must be accompanied by a parent — and the clothes which stack the shelves are only opened up to the community at certain times, not constantly.

Watch a video on Sant’Egidio and the volunteers who are committed to helping the Roma. | Photo and video by Bogan Mohora

The center in no way can support the 140,000 to 160,000 of Roma who live in Italy. Betti says the community is already seeking a larger location to house the services in the near future. The current building is struggling to contain the quantity of people coming for help on a regular basis.

The center relies on unpaid volunteers — all members of the Sant’Egidio community — as well as donations from shops and mainly public institutions like the European Union, and is heavily financially supported by the Italian Bishops Conference and the Foreign Bishops Conference (each conference supports different Sant’Egidio projects).

Sant’Egidio does not receive the Italian’s government’s otto per mille (eight per thousand), unless taxpayers specifically indicate on tax forms to donate their annual income tax to Sant’Egidio as a recipient. Even then, the community can only receive cinque per mille (five per thousand), as per Italian tax law.

But the donors, whether they come from the tax or store donations, are not notified of whom exactly their funds or items are assisting, Betti says. And Sant’Egidio feels no need to specify.

“If a person takes a stand of helping they do not make a difference between helping a gypsy or an immigrant or an Italian homeless,” Betti says.

But in a country so plagued by negative sentiment toward the Roma people, Betti agrees the donors would be “more wary” to help the gypsy community. Sant’Egidio has faced severe backlash throughout the country for openly helping the people ostracized by majority groups. Betti says Sant’Egidio has been called “not Catholic enough” for their non-proselyting approach.  Sant’Egidio invites all faiths and ethnicities into its’ centers and extends help with a secular hand. The center, which was built as a testament to the Second Vatican’s call for more involvement of lay people in church and good works, showcases no outward religious symbols.

Unlike many public areas of Italy, crucifixes are not found hanging on walls and there is no mandatory religious participation of the people who accept the help. Their symbol is simply a white dove flying over a rainbow.

The center even stands separated from the church in which the members celebrate traditional Catholic services.

Sant’Egidio — a lay organization officially recognized by the Vatican — it seems, is attempting a separation of church and state in a country that has historically tangled and twisted the two.

Hancock, the Unicef representative concerned with the Roma, says that historically “established religions,” — he notes Christianity and Islam as the main perpetrators — have not been welcoming to the Roma community, even excluding them from prayer services or excommunicating priests for performing marriages between Roma couples. Situations like this, Hancock says, have led Roma to shy from being resolute in their religious practices and instead align their spirituality with that of the country’s dominant population.

“It’s a means of survival to at least appear to be part of the society,” Hancock says.

The Holy See Office for the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People provides the Catholic Church with guidelines on how the Roma should be treated, integrated and evangelized. Its last statement on the subject, released in 2005, includes some harsh words and advice on Roma culture. It says in part:

“The Church recognizes [Roma] right to have their own identity, and works to achieve a greater justice for them, respecting their culture and healthy traditions. But rights and duties go together, and therefore also the Gypsies have duties towards other peoples.

Moreover, education, professional training and personal initiatives and responsibility are indispensable prerequisites for achieving a dignified quality of life for Gypsies, all elements of human promotion. Equal rights for men and women should likewise be promoted, eliminating all forms of discrimination… In this sense, any attempt to assimilate the Gypsy culture, and dissolve it in that of the majority, should be rejected.”

Dragan largely dismissed the document.  “The Vatican only cares about the Catholics, he says. As an Orthodox, he says the major Orthodox Church in Rome does not have enough resources to provide help to the Roma at the capacity that Sant’Egidio is able to. Additionally, Dragan says there are no specifically Roma priests in the area to educate children about their faith. The Roma community is particularly worried that traditions and customs will slowly begin to die down, he adds.

Cassim, the Muslim Roma camp leader, says that it is for their own house of worship that these Roma wish for, somewhere, that won’t elicit stares of pity or whispers of racism when families wish to pray together. At some point, in the struggles to worship, even the denomination of the higher being loses its significance to the Roma.

“It is important for the kids to believe in God,” he says. “Whether they believe in Orthodoxy or Islam, they need to believe in something.”


It is into this somewhat religious vacuum that Sant’Egidio has stepped in to offer some form of religious and spiritual presence to the Roma.

Betti says on major feast days, especially the feast of Saint George — a saint worshipped largely by Roma worldwide —Sant’Egidio members (all Catholic) will perform an Orthodox mass in the camps, where Betti says, often several of the Muslim Roma will also be in attendance to celebrate the day. To Betti, this peaceful coexistence should be emulated in all parts of the world. To others, the blatant disregard for doctrinal rules of worship could seem borderline blasphemous.

To Maksimovic, Sant’Egidio, he says, is one of the only places he and his family have been allowed to “be themselves” — a task achieved by a community which is sewn from the same societal fabric that so doggedly and stubbornly has woven a country that inherently rejects immigrant assimilation, especially that of the Roma.

“Racism against gypsies, it is compared to anti-Semitism,” Betti says. “Anti-gytism, it is called in Italy, is extremely strong. It matches, or is even more powerful than, anti-Semitism. “The judgment against gypsies is so bad they face difficulties on all levels… It’s a mentality, it’s a culture that they think gypsies are so different from everyone. It’s a hatred for what is different.

“We live in a myth that [gypsies] want to roam around. They are forced to do it because nobody wants to settle down next to them. They would love to integrate but they just cannot.

“Try to find a house as a gypsy, try to find a job,” Betti says. “You can’t.”


Maksimovic and his family have long faced these problems of joblessness and racism. His son recently lost his job as a chef because he was discovered to be a Roma and his son-in-law was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit,  Maksimovic says. Maksimovic was born in Serbia and has lived in Italy for the past four decades. His children were all born and raised in Italy and some of them have even married Italians.

He is still not considered a legal Italian citizen.

Pablo Naso, an Italian activist for immigrant rights, says the negative attitudes toward gypsies stem in part from the stringent anti-immigration policies of the former Prime Minister Silvo Berlusconi. These were built on the idea that if immigrants were given opportunities and assistance to integrate it would encourage more immigrants to enter the country. Instead, Berlusconi’s government made any assimilation nearly impossible.

But with the days of Berlusconi’s government behind it, Italy is en route for a gradual, but nonetheless, significant transformation. Naso says the right-winged Northern League is now in opposition, allowing for a much more free public discourse, especially about the Roma.

He adds he is optimistic for the future of the Roma’s social inclusion, saying he sees dramatic differences possible in the next 10 years as long as the Roma also create a “mutual bilateral process” of integration, ultimately being committed to sending children to schools, learning Italian and getting regular jobs.

Sant’Egidio is integral in shaping this new public discourse. In November 2011, Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant’Egidio was appointed minister for International Cooperation and Integration Policies within Mario Monti’s new government.

Riccardi’s presence within the government already points toward a new era of social Catholicism and open-mindedness nearly nonexistent before. Though Naso says Riccardi has already opened up several doors to immigrant integration, including visiting the Mosque of Rome, Riccardi’s efforts to rally support to change policy surrounding the Roma community has been near impossible to achieve, Betti says.

Riccardi has attempted, on more than one occasion, Betti says, to introduce legislation or a dialogue about the integration of Roma into society; it has repeatedly faced strong opposition. There would be a public outcry against politicians for putting services into place or providing funding for Roma housing before the needs of the Italian homeless and needy, Betti says.

So for the time being, Riccardi’s involvement with the Roma is limited to the resources and social services that grow out of Trastevere each Friday.


Aside from the social services that Sant’Egidio provides, it offers one other tradition to all who pass its gates in Trastevere. As 6 p.m. arrives each night, members and visitors alike stand still and observe a moment of silence.

For 60 seconds, all activity ceases, only church bells clamor throughout the city. The solitary minute acts as a universal call to pause and remember the poor and needy among us. It is a moment that all people, Roma or Italian, rich and poor, need.


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Revealing Family Secrets Thu, 10 May 2012 05:28:07 +0000 Aby Thomas By Aby Sam Thomas 

Amedeo Di Cori's photograph and the letters he sent from the Regano Coeli prison in Rome. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

ROME: On a fine March morning at her home in Via Cesare Pascarella, Sara Terracina breathed in deeply as she took the postcard-sized, black and white photograph that her mother handed to her. It was the picture of a boy and a girl, brother and sister, standing in front of a railing overlooking hilly Italian scenery.

Sara stared at the image of the boy for a few moments. His pants were a little too high above his waist, and the white shirt he wore seemed too big for him.  His hair was combed back, his eyes looked downward and there was a hint of a smile on his bashful face.

“This was my uncle, Amedeo,” she said. “This is the first time I am seeing what he looked like.”

Amedeo Di Cori was 16 years old when he was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 in Rome and kept at the Regano Coeli prison in the city for a few months. He was then taken to the camps at Auschwitz, and was eventually killed in Germany toward the end of the Second World War.

Although Sara, 32, grew up knowing that her mother had a teenage brother who died in the Holocaust, her mother had never told her about the existence of this photograph of Amedeo, or about the letters that he sent during his few months at Regano Coeli.

Sara, a graduate in international affairs and history, works as a tour guide taking visitors around the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, explaining the history of the Jews in Rome. Sara often peppered her talks with anecdotes from her own family history, but today, she realized there were still many details about her uncle that her family hadn’t yet told her.

Sometimes it takes a stranger to get families talking. I met Sara during a trip to Rome with my “Covering Religion” seminar at Columbia University. Sara had invited me to her home to meet Amedeo’s siblings: her mother, Luciana Terracina, and her uncle, Angelo Di Cori, and they retold the story of the uncle Sara never knew.

As Sara cradled her own son, one-year-old Gideon, Angelo and Luciana brought forth first Amedeo’s picture, and then his letters. Sara had never seen them before. But these were the only remains the family had of Amedeo: a young life that was cruelly ended by the Nazis and their Italian collaborators.


Regina Coeli

April 25, 1944

Dear Mother,

It’s only now that I am able to write a few lines to you. I can tell you that I am fine, my health is fine. I am quite relaxed, and I hope that you feel the same. I received all your packages. I ate all the food that you prepared for me. I was very happy because everything was prepared in our house—it was delicious.

We are waiting to leave for an unknown destination, on maybe Tuesday or Thursday. If you can, could you send me some more things that I need? Can you send me some thread and a sewing needle, some cigarettes, some soap — it’s very useful in here. And please, more paper and envelopes. I am writing a lot of things in here, although I don’t know when they will reach you.

With this letter, I send you a lot of kisses, and a million more to Franca and Luciana. I hope to see you all as soon as possible. Please tell me any news you know about Marietta. I hope that she is fine. Once again, a trillion kisses from your dearest son,



Undated photograph of Amedeo Di Cori with his sister, Rina Di Cori. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

Amedeo was the eldest son in the Di Cori family; a large Jewish family that consisted of the parents, Mario and Giulia, and six children: Rina, Amedeo, Angelo, Giuseppina, Luciana and Franco. They lived in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome, and his father made a living both as an oculist and as a hawker on the streets of Rome.

However, this changed with the laws under the “Manifesto della Razza,” the Manifesto of Race issued by the Italian government in 1938. Under these laws, Italian Jews were stripped of their citizenship, and weren’t allowed to practice their professions. With Mario unable to work anymore, the onus of taking care of the family was taken up by the young Amedeo.

Amedeo followed his father’s example, and became a hawker, laying out his wares on a table in the street. Although this makeshift shop became the Di Cori family’s primary source of income, Amedeo was working in extremely dangerous conditions. The fascist regime had put out rewards for people who caught Jews breaking the racial laws — and Amedeo was a prize catch for anyone greedy enough for the money.

“It used to be 5000 liras for a Jewish man, 3000 liras for a Jewish woman and 1000 lira for a Jewish child,” Sara explained. “At that time, it was a lot of money. People were starving, and they would do anything for the money.”

Sara paused for a minute, breathing in deeply. “I’m not saying I condone their behavior. I hate the people who sold out the Jews,” she said. “But yes, I can understand the situation they were in.”

One day in April 1944, Amedeo’s luck ran out. A fascist soldier arrested him, and took him to the Regano Coeli prison in Rome.


Regina Coeli

May 2, 1944 

Dear Mother,

I received your package with food, and I thank you so much for that, and for everything you do for me. I ate everything you sent me and I’m very glad to know that all of you are fine. I hope Franca and Luciana will never forget their beloved brother and that, one day, when God wills it, I hope I will be able to hug you again and hug them again and to buy for them all the sweets in the world, all the sweets and candies they want.

Dear Mother, do not send me more bread, just send me three of those since I have enough of that in here. For the next package, please send me some toothpaste, a toothbrush and soap. I am in good health and I am very relaxed. Again, a lot of kisses for everyone at home. And please say hello to all my friends and relatives.

From your beloved son,

Amedeo di Cori.


The final undated letter that Amedeo Di Cori sent from his time at the Regano Coeli prison in Rome. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

Once she learned that her son was in the Regano Coeli prison, Amedeo’s mother made an arrangement of sorts with people who worked at the prison. Through them, she was able to send her son food, clothes and other items of daily use. It was through the exchange of laundry that Amedeo and his mother found a way to communicate with each other as well.

Every time he gave away his clothes to be washed, Amedeo would replace the cards that were used to keep the collars stiff in some of his shirts with small pieces of paper on which he had written letters to his family. It was a risky practice, but a channel of communication was opened between them.

In his four letters from Regano Coeli, Amedeo put up a brave front, constantly telling his mother not to worry about his welfare. Loving words to his mother and siblings make up most of his letters. Amedeo seemed to have a relentless hope for a future when he would be able to see his family again.

Amedeo also made sure that he didn’t run his family into trouble if his letters were found by the prison guards. Since he knew that the Nazis were targeting Jewish men in their arrests, he changed the names of his family’s male members to make them seem female. Thus, in his letters, he referred to his father, Mario, as Marietta and his brother, Franco, as Franca.

Such actions by Amedeo in his letters were characteristic of his protective nature, said his youngest sister, and Sara’s mother, Luciana. While he was the caretaker of the entire family, Luciana remembered his particular fondness toward his youngest siblings.

“Every night — every single night — when he would come back home after work, he would always have some little gift for me and for the little one, Franco,” she said, her eyes welling up as she remembered.“He never came back without something for us.”


May 20, 1944 

Dear Mother,

I am writing to you these few lines because I’d like to let you know that I am about to leave. If I can, I will write to you from where I am going.

Be strong, and have faith. Please pray for me to the holy God that He will assist me. Just like the way that I am praying to him now, please do the same as well. I am full of courage and faith. I pray and I have faith in God that one day, he will let me hug you again.


Three generations: Luciana Terracina with her daughter, Sara, and her grandson, Gideon. | Photo by Aby Sam Thomas.

It was not just the photograph of Amedeo that took Sara by surprise today — she was seeing the letters for the first time as well. As Sara read the letters out loud, her voice broke several times, and she struggled to keep her composure. Later, Sara said that she wasn’t surprised that her mother had chosen to keep these documents away from her all this while.

“The answer to why my mother she didn’t show me these things is because I am her little daughter,” Sara said. “She thought this was too much for me and that I should be protected. She knew that this was too painful for her, so she must have thought it’s too painful for her little daughter.”

Luciana was only a young girl when her brother was arrested but her memories of the time are still vivid. Nightmares of the Nazis coming wake her up from her sleep even today. Although Luciana still finds it difficult to watch historical video footage on Nazi concentration camps, she grits her teeth and continues to see them, hoping to see her brother somewhere in those clips.

“It still hurts,” Luciana said, pressing her hand against her heart. “Every time we sit down to eat, every time we go out, the memories are always in my heart. Every moment we get together with family, we always return to talking about the past. Sharing the burden of memories doesn’t make me feel better — I’m just passing along the story.”

It was many years after the war that the Di Cori family carried out research of their own to find out what exactly had happened to Amedeo. As the war reached its end in 1945, the Nazis were taking out prisoners and indiscriminately killing them. Amedeo was one of those victims — he was shot and killed on January 6, 1945 at Hailfingen in Germany.

Sara gave birth to Gideon a year ago, and her new role as a mother has helped her better understand the pain and trauma her family, particularly her grandmother, had to live through.“Because I can imagine that it could happen to me — not to die myself, but to suffer the pain of a mother seeing her 16-year-old son taken away from her and die in a horrible way, so far from home, maybe calling my name,” she said.

“Because that is the thing that most scares me,” she added, as she tightly hugged Gideon. “My son is calling my name and I am not there to help him.”


(undated, final letter)

We are leaving for the concentration camp, maybe the one in Carpi, Modena. Once I get there, if it is possible, I will write to you. We are all fine, and full of courage.

Greetings to everybody.



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To Italy and back in under 90 seconds Wed, 09 May 2012 16:44:32 +0000 Trinna Leong By Trinna Leong

In a short, but poignant video, Trinna Leong captures the Religio staff’s most memorable experiences from day 1 at the baggage claim in Rome’s Fiumicino airport to the farewell dinner on our last night.

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The paradox of birth control in Italy Sun, 06 May 2012 07:20:04 +0000 Anam Siddiq By Anam Siddiq

In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the use of artificial birth control devices and drugs are strictly forbidden. The Vatican even likens their use to the medical procedure they most fear, abortion, saying that contraceptives and abortions are “the fruits of the same tree.” Yet, the incredibly low birth rate among Italian women suggests that birth control is widely practiced. There is evidence of this, even in the shadow of the Vatican where pharmacies openly sell condoms.

Meanwhile in the United States, the Obama Administration recently mandated that virtually all employers, including Catholic schools, hospitals and social service agencies, must have health insurance plans that cover contraceptives for their employees. The most strident opponents of this policy have been America’s Catholic bishops. In light of the ensuing debate, it is instructive to take stock of how influential the Catholic Church is on this topic in Italy, the home of the Vatican.

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The African Catholic Experience Sat, 05 May 2012 18:49:16 +0000 Brandon Gates By Brandon L. Gates

When people think of the Catholics, this usually doesn’t include Africans. As Africa becomes more evangelized, the number of Africans practicing Catholicism is growing at an expeditious rate. The number of Catholics in Africa went up from an estimated 2 million in 1900 to about 140 million in 2000.

Many Africans move to Rome to study Catholicism and the teachings of the church. Brandon Gates speaks with two Africans studying at Pontificia Università della Santa Croce about their experience as African Catholics.

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