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January 19, 2020
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Begging is "a human right" says the Vatican

Vatican/Rome, 9.8.2008 9:42, (Times Online)

The Italian Government is cracking down on street beggars but the Church says asking for "a piece of bread" and help against "the hunger and cold" is no crime.

The Vatican has criticised a crackdown on street begging in Italian cities, saying that to ask for alms was a "human right".

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants, said he agreed with the centre right government of Silvio Berlusconi that begging "rackets", in which fake beggars were put onto Italian streets by organised gangs to "profit from peoples generosity", must be eliminated.

However this should be done without hindering the right of the genuinely poverty stricken to "ask for help", the cardinal said. He added: "We have to adopt the right Christian attitude. Our Lord himself said that the poor are with us always. The moment you defeat one kind of poverty, another kind arises."

Cardinal Martino, a former Vatican nuncio (ambassador) to the Unied Nations who also heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told Corriere della Sera it was the "fundamental right" of people marginalised by society to ask for "a piece of bread" and for help against "hunger and cold". There was however "a temptation to close one's eyes to need, and look the other way".

Under a "security decree" promulgated by the Berlusconi government, which took office in May on a law and order platform, local mayors and police chiefs have been given extra powers to deal with street crime. Last month July Venice become the first city in Italy officially to ban begging, a move intended to stamp out the growing problem of children - including Roma gypsy chldren - being exploited by criminal gangs.

Anti begging police patrols in Venice have concentrated on St Mark's Square, the Rialto Bridge and the Venice Lido, with fines of 50 to 500 Euros for those caught begging. The crackdown has been followed by several other cities, including Rome, where Gianni Alemanno, the mayor, this week ordered police to stop people begging, demanding money for washing windscreens at traffic lights, and scavenging in rubbish bins.

However Mr Alemanno later put the scavenging ban on hold after coming under fire from the Vatican and from charities, which said the ban had be accompanied by more help for the destitute. Monsignor Vinicio Albanesi, of the Catholic charity Capodarco, said "Mayors are competing to see who is the toughest 'sheriff', with recent by-laws on from everything from prostitution, drug pushing, begging, vagabonds, rubbish and hawking".

Mr Alemanno, a former neo Fascist youth leader and now a member of the right wing Alleanza Nazionale, a key component in the Berlusconi government, also announced this week that Rome municipal police, or vigili, who mainly carry out traffic duties, would carry guns for the first time in 35 years. This week the government deployed 3000 troops to guard "sensitive" buildings such as embassies and join police in joint street patrols.

The Vatican has been in the forefront of critics of the crackdown on crime, illegal immigration and gypsies, with Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Council for Migrants and Itinerants, warning the government to "respect human rights". In Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island off the North African coast where thousands of illegal immigrants are landing daily, Bernardino De Rubeis, the mayor, retorted that "if the Vatican cares so much about these people it could at least open up some of its half empty convents to take in the women and children".

Richard Owen
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