March 2010

The fact that I am a hardliner when it comes to secularism does not mean I’m anticlerical. Yes, the Catholic Church does anger me when it expresses itself in ways that can (and do) harm minorities especially, but not exclusively homosexuals. However I also appreciate that on many things the Catholic Church has a positive impact on Maltese society.

Some 10 years ago I had the opportunity to work with the Sisters of Mother Theresa. I was already agnostic back then, but it didn’t seem to bother them at all. These amazing women dedicate literally their whole lives to others (as well as to God), especially the poor and the most vulnerable. They help the people in every sense of the word – spiritually, emotionally and also practically. I’ve seen them carrying boxes of vegetables to distribute them to the most needy, preparing meals for the homeless, helping kids with homework. They did anything possible that could help these people, both by giving them the fish to eat, as well as teaching them how to fish.

Then came the sex scandals. Probably the heaviest blow the Catholic Church has had to deal with in the last century. Needless to say, all the cases that came to light as well as the fact that many had been covered up, is shocking to say the least. However, I believe there is another reason why this blow was so heavy. A reason the Church seems to ignore.

There are many reasons why the Catholic Church (and other religious movements) maintains respect and power. One of them is fear of hell. Thankfully this is losing its effect. Another reason, probably the most important, is the fact that the church was (in some aspects it still is) near to the people, and not only the faithful. The sisters of Mother Theresa are a case in point. I am sure that in the communities they are present there are many devout Catholics who wouldn’t be as such hadn’t it been for these sisters. Fear of hell and dogmas do not attract many people nowadays. Unconditional love does.

Fr. Mark Montebello is controversial and in many communities also popular. However, except for a couple of radicals, I don’t think Fr Mark’s popularity is due to the fact that he is controversial. In ways similar to the Sisters of Mother Theresa Fr Mark has always been there for those who are really in need in our society. Especially those whom parts of our society has refused, especially prisoners. Giving a voice to these people is sometimes considered controversial. I consider it Christian.

Fr Mark Montebello has been deemed controversial, and subsequently reported to Ecclesiastical Authorities, because he spoke our for paedophiles and migrants. All that he said is that these are human beings and their rights and dignity should be respected. That, in the case of paedophiles, there are more effective ways to deal with this crime than to keep a register of whoever committed such a crime. Or that, in the case of a Nigerian person, if this person claims he was unjustifiably arrested, it does not mean he is lying, just because he’s an African. Or maybe some took offence when he said that the crucifix, a reminder of the person whose path he tries to follow, should not be flaunted and used as a means of dividing people.

I have met people from the clergy that have beliefs similar to Fr Mark’s. They do not say them in public (I definitely don’t blame them) but live them. Those who refuse to put people into categories, judge others and go about throwing stones forgetting that they too have sinned.

Whether as outspoken as Fr Mark or not, these are the members of the clergy that attract people towards the Catholic Church. At the rsk of sounding controversial, I think that what makes such people different from others in the clergy is that they consider Christ at their true leader, rather than the Pope.

The way this is written I might have given the impression that such priests and nuns are a minority. In reality, I believe that they are actually the silent majority.


Most dictators are afraid of a particular group of people – students. In different ways the governments of Libya, Egypt or Iran and many others intimidate, harass, imprison and even execute students hoping they will shut their mouth up. Yet, amid all adversity and serious personal risk, some refuse to shut up.

Students in such countries have to hide behind a computer screen to spread their message. It isn’t foolproof and a few are persecuted anyway. Others have to support their words with guns.

But we are better off, aren’t we? We can freely speak our voice without such fears? Ok, not always. However, compared to these totalitarian regimes, our students do have much more freedom to evaluate and criticize society. Our government can’t even dream of sending its troops to University. So it has to find another way. And it did.

They hijacked our students. The recent spat at the Kunsill Studenti Universitarji (KSU) is a clear example. Studenti Demokratici Maltin (SDM) use bullying and a ridiculous electoral system to keep on electing exclusively themselves. Pro-government and extremely conservative, this group of student is doing exactly the opposite of the courageous dissidents in totalitarian regimes. That is, making sure other students’ voices are not heard.

However, this week something really interesting happened. As Pulse, SDM’s main adversary, decided to boycott the elections, an ad hoc movement of students was formed. Moviment Indipendenti (MI) is proposing three students whose credentials are other than being puppets of our stuck-in-a-rut system.

I invite anyone reading this blog to take a look at what these students are for:!/pages/Moviment-Indipendenti/373654617407?ref=mf

I can’t vote for these people because I’m no longer a student. However I appeal to any student about having a true democracy to vote for MI next Thursday.

All over the world, students are shedding their blood for their freedoms. For democracy. Is it too much to use a couple of minutes of your time for what should be our common interest?

Arriva Pinochet
A morte gli Ebrei
Il negro non commuove
Seig Heil

What makes this ‘slogan’ worrying is the fact that it wasn’t sung by a couple of disoriented teenagers. It was sung by police, the ‘forze del ordine’ of what many consider a democratic country – Italy. These words were chanted while the Police were beating people (the absolute majority of whom were non-violent) who protested against the G8 summit in Italy, July 2001.

More than 300,000 people turned up to protest against the way eight countries were deciding the fate of the world between the 20th and 22nh July 2001 in Genova. They came from various groups and organisations, Catholics, Greens, pacifists, leftists and human rights activists. None of them had any violent intentions except for a small group of 500, the black bloc. With whom the latter were affiliated is still a mistery. The reason for this is chilling in itself, since after the riots, after the police brutality and murder of Carlo Guiliani, out of the 250 people arrested there was not a single ‘black bloc’ member.

Different movements demonstrated in different streets. The 500 black bloc divided themselves and infiltrated all the groups. They went, created a riot and vanished in a couple of minutes. Yet, after they left the violence continued, In many circumstances, especially regarding Catholic movements, the protestors did not offer any resistance, yet they were savagely beaten by the Italian police.

Some other movements retaliated to this abuse. One of them was Carlo Giuliani’s movement, Carlo being the only fatality in the whole episode (towards which two police officers were intercepted saying ‘uno a zero per noi’). Giuliani’s group believed in passive resistance. They were considered as ‘disobedient’ but not violent. At least not before the police started assaulting them with tear gas, beating them and chanting slogans like the one mentioned above.

Yet, there was more to come. Groups of demonstrators rested (with permission) in schools, most notably Scuola Diaz. The police infiltrated the schools and beat the shit out of them, not only the demonstrators but also journalists and medics who happened to be there. Not a single person of them was black bloc.

There is still speculation who the black bloc really were. Some think they were infiltrated within the police, others claim they are neo-fascists with the deliberate intention of disrupting the protests. Others believe they were just hooligans. Whoever they were is not really important now. What is very significant though, is the fact, that when these people committed illegalities, even before the riots started (including destroying the pavement and collecting large stones as ammunition) the ‘forze dell ordine’ did absolutely nothing.

Such repression is expected (though never justified) in countries where there is a dictatorship or a brutal regime in power such as Iran, China or Myanmar. However it is extremely disturbing that all this happened in a so called democratic European country only nine years ago. It is also worth mentioning that Italy is under the same Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, in the present day.

The attacks on democracy on July 2001 should never be forgotten, definitely not in the near future. They are a reminder that even in a European democracy a government can use an iron fist on civilians just exercising their fundamental rights of assembly and expression.

The only good thing that could come out of this tragedy is learning from it.

A few years ago, a man escaped from prison with only one goal in mind: to kill another person, knowing that this would make him a murderer apart from thief, and that most likely he would never get out of prison in alive. However, the killing did not only make him a murderer. It also a made him a hero in the community, because the victim was not only hated in the neighborhood, but worse still – feared. He was a usurer and used to keep the prison escapee’s mother, along with a number of other people in the community, in constant terror.

A few days ago, another well known usurer was murdered. By the time of writing, it is still not sure whether the murder is related to usury. What is sure is that there are a number of people in his community that consider the murderer as God sent.

Having said that, I must say like I did many times before that I am against any kind of vigilantism (taking the law in your hands). Whatever the reasons, these situations are cases of murder and should be punished (though I do expect a more lenient sentence if the man you killed had been terrifying you or your family). However, vigilantism should not only be stopped by punishment but also by justice. Usury is still not considered as a severe crime, and sometimes it is even punished with just a suspended sentence. This is mostly due to the fact that in many situations while the illegal lending of money could be proven without reasonable doubt, the threats and violence couldn’t.

Thus the laws on the illegal lending of money should be stepped up. Even if there are no threats and violence or can’t be proven.

Contrary to the way the law is, I believe that usury should be considered as a more serious crime than drug trafficking. A drug dealer is selling a deadly substance. A substance that will get, or keep a person hooked up on it possibly for life. It will probably make his life a living hell, and eventually kill him. However, unlike the victim of usury, the drug addict still has a choice. As hard as it is he can still have his life back by rehabilitating himself, and the drug dealer can do nothing to stop this. The victim of usury usually has no more say in his life. If the victim had been a drug addict or a gambler, no amount of rehab and therapy will stop the usurer from getting his money back, with the astronomic interests.

Victims of usury have very limited options, all of them negative to themselves as well as to the rest of society. Basically these are: engaging in criminal activity to get the money, suicide, murdering their oppressor or fleeing the country.

I’ve worked with victims of usury, and would like to end this article with a chilling account one young mother told me:

“When pay time is approaching, I see him there daily. From 6.00 a.m his car will be parked in front of my house and he watches, just watches and makes his presence felt. When I go out with Jamie he just gazes at him. He’s just 3 years old, but realises that the man is watching him. I tell him he is a crazy man but is harmless, he just looks at people and does nothing. Which is true mind you, he just looks. However that’s because I pay him a hefty sum each month. I’ve already paid him three times as much the original sum he has lent me.”

We see many issues in the daily news which are of no much relevance, storm in teacups. Yet we rarely hear about usury. Unfortunately this is not because it doesn’t exist. It exists and how. It’s just because the victims are afraid to speak up. They know the law will not protect them. And when they get hit by a car or thrown off a bridge, media wise, it is just another unfortunate accident or a suicide