The Sant’ Egidio lay community was founded in Rome in 1968 with a vocation to help the poor. As the community has grown, it has become more involved in seeking negotiated solutions to armed conflicts. Based in a former Carmelite convent in Rome, Sant’ Egidio now numbers some 15-20,000 members spread throughout Italy and other countries around the world. From the beginning, Sant’ Egidio has enjoyed close ties with both the Italian government and the Vatican. Its leaders continue to meet with Pope John Paul II several times each year. Its strength, however, is its unofficial status and its ability to support itself on voluntary contributions. This has given it the freedom of informal diplomatic manoeuvre, which made its role in the search for a settlement of Mozambique’s war so effective.
Sant’ Egidio’s involvement with the Mozambican peace process was made possible by the informal and flexible network of relations it developed in the country. In 1976, Dom Jaime Goncalves, then a young priest studying in Rome, became a friend of the community. In 1977, after being named Bishop of Beira, Goncalves returned to Rome for a synod and discussed the severe restrictions being placed on the Christian churches in post-independence Mozambique. In response to Goncalves’ visit, Sant’ Egidio worked to increase religious freedom in Mozambique over the following years.
In 1981, Andrea Riccardi of Sant’ Egidio invited Goncalves to a meeting between Enrico Berlinguer, the head of the Italian Communist Party, and members of the community interested in Mozambique. At this meeting, Berlinguer offered to use his own moral authority and connections to persuade Frelimo to lift its restrictions on religious practice. These contacts were instrumental in opening dialogue between the government and members of Sant’ Egidio.
Sant’ Egidio also played a humanitarian role in Mozambique, developing ties with missionaries serving in the war zones. In 1982, it helped negotiate the release of priests and nuns held captive by Renamo. These were the first direct contacts with the rebels and the beginning of a relationship that, over time, developed into trust. Andrea Riccardi and his colleague Dom Matteo Zuppi travelled to Maputo in 1984 to discuss humanitarian assistance with government officials. In 1985 and 1987, Sant’ Egidio sent shipments of food and medicine to Mozambique and during this period two members of the community were killed in armed attacks. Around this time, the community also negotiated the release from jail of an Italian friar named Giocondo Pagliara, whom Frelimo had accused of being a ‘treasurer’ for Renamo.
Sant’ Egidio facilitated contacts between the government and the Holy See at several times during the mid-1980s. On several occasions, Archbishop Achille Sylvestrini, then the Vatican’s Foreign Minister, visited Sant’ Egidio for discreet talks with Frelimo officials. In 1985, the community arranged for President Machel to meet the Pope in Rome, despite Machel’s refusal to make a formal request as required by the Holy See. The meeting helped to encourage dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Frelimo government and diplomatic relations between the two were strengthened in the following years.
In April 1989, Renamo telexed the Pope and Sant’ Egidio requesting help in setting up a unilateral Renamo ceasefire in Nampula province. Sant’ Egidio responded by inviting Dhlakama to Rome for a private visit. In June, Dhlakama postponed this visit, although by October he was again open to meeting with Archbishop Goncalves and with Italian Foreign Minister Andreotti. In February 1990, Dhlakama finally visited Rome for meetings set up by Sant’ Egidio.
That March, Mozambique’s Foreign Minister Pascoal Mocumbi met with the Vatican’s Archbishop Sodano and requested Vatican support in seeking direct dialogue with Renamo. In April, the Mozambican Minister of Labour, Aguiar Mazula, suggested in a meeting set up by Sant’ Egidio in Rome that if the attempted mediation efforts of Kenya and Zimbabwe failed, Sant’ Egidio might consider supporting direct negotiations. Following aborted talks in Malawi in June, Sant’ Egidio’s leaders moved quickly to convene dialogue in Rome. Both sides indicated their willingness to meet in the city and the Italian government offered financial and diplomatic support for the talks.
On 16 June, Renamo’s Raul Domingos arrived in Rome and formally asked Sant’ Egidio to mediate. The following week, President Chissano told the Italian ambassador in Maputo that he was ready to send a delegation to Rome to meet with the rebels. The two delegations first met formally at Sant’ Egidio on 8 July, although several had already met informally at a World Cup football match in Rome in June. This was the start of 27 months of negotiations hosted by Sant’ Egidio.
Sant’ Egidio’s success at the Rome talks stemmed in large part from their close links to the Mozambican parties. This significantly enhanced their ability to keep the peace process on track, despite the regular breakdown of dialogue between the government and Renamo. criticism came from different quarters that Sant’ Egidio was too close to one party or the other. Doubts were also expressed about its ability to effectively support, rather than hinder, the parallel diplomatic efforts underway to resolve the conflict. Nevertheless, Sant’ Egidio’s modest claim that it offers no prescriptions but seeks to create opportunities for people to find solutions themselves is perhaps one key reason why the 1992 Mozambican peace settlement continues to hold today.