Protestant Church that found shelter for the people of Syria in Italy's Hills
Aware of the history of persecution, the Waldensian Church members have taken the lead in bringing refugees from Syria to Italy.
Maha Dahine's story is similar in its history to that of countless victims of war in Syria, and her two sons, Hanna and Antoine Khoury. In 2016 they fled their home countries for an unstable future in Europe, motivated by fear and hopelessness.
But while thousands of refugees have taken the lives of rickety boats across the Mediterranean, Ms. Dahine and her sons have encountered several different things.
In November 2018, the family embarked upon an airplane in Lebanon, where they spent two years escaping from Syria and flying to Rome, before leaving for the western Piedmont alpine valleys to begin a new life.
The Waldensians, a religious movement which was first founded in the 12th century in Piedmont to avoid persecution in France, made this trip partly possible.
Fueled by this memory and with the support of the Federation of Evangelical Churches of Italy and the Congregation of St. Egidio, the Waldensian population has been at the forefront of an Italian initiative called the Humanitarian Corridairs which has helped about 2,000 refugees coming from Syria arrived in the country since 2016.
Erika Tomassone, church official, who has kept in mind for centuries ancestors shunned from country to land said the Waldensians were very sensitive to the issue of refugees.
The executive secretaries of the Waldensian Deacon, which organize the charitable work of the Church, Gianluca Barbanotti, said that we were traditionally immigrants.
In a predominantly catholic region, the Waldensian church is the largest Protestant denomination. There are today approximately 20,000 Waldensians in Italy. The majority now live in three valleys in the Piedmont: the Chisone Valley, the Germanasca Valley and the Pellice Valley.
The village of Torre Pellice includes the Waldensian Quarter, built in the terraced houses of England of the 19th century, with a temple inspired by the Churches of the Anglican Republic, which served as a node to the British Protestant people who supported the Wild Protestants almost two centuries ago.
Waldensian groups in Italy have engaged closely in humanitarian corridors, building on their long experience in the work of migrants.
Humanitarian corridors are built to support extremely vulnerable refugees — often with major health conditions — who are found in places like Lebanon via a long screening process. Although the numbers are tiny, in France, Belgium and Andorra the Waldensians are now saying that their program will be emulated.
The initiative is a 'gaining model for a Europe worthy of the ideals of unity and respect for human rights,' says Alessandra Trotta, chair of a seven-member commission, which governs the "Union of Methodians and Waldensian Churches," as the Church is officially called. The initiative is the first of its kind.
The Waldensians are named after a Lyon merchant of the 12th century called Valdo who shunned his riches and started preaching on the streets in order to exculpate and branded heretics by Papal Lucius III and his follower.
Many Waldensians sought refuge in the Cottian Alpine valleys, throughout Italy and France, which through centuries of periodic persecution became a center of their kind.
Davide Rosso, director of the Waldensian Cultural Center Base, stated that the 1630s and 1655s camp of the Duke of Savoy for the suppression of the Waldensians, influenced by the English poet John Milton, "The Seventeenth century was particularly difficult." That concluded by Oliver cromwell's speech. "It was a very difficult century."
Just shortly before the same privileges were given to the Judges of Italy was it in 1848, the King Charles Albert of Savoy, who ruled over the area in which the Valdensians had settled.
In Italy the church is famous for its liberal conduct. In 1967, he consecrated his first woman priest and in Italy was the first Protestant Church to bless civil associations of the same sex in a church ministry. Neither does the Catholic Church authorize. Ms Trotta said her struggle to ensure respect of her rights motivated her efforts to guarantee human rights for everyone.
"We are the strange Christians who do not want the public crucifix," Ms. Trotta said.
At the ceremony held in Turin in 2015, Ms Trotta was present when Pope Francis called for forgiveness of the persecution of the former Waldensians by the Catholic Church.
"The final blessing was asked of me—everybody said now that 'Thou blessedest the Pope.'" She chuckled.
A large proportion of the church funds come from Italian taxpayers who have to pass a percentage of their taxes to a charitable or social project. Last year, 560,000 Italian taxpayers opted to finance Waldensians, which accounted for approximately €42 million or $51 million. "We know that it gives us responsibility," Ms Trotta said.
The Humanitarian Corridors are compensated with this funding.
MsTrotta said the hallways were a "winning model" that showed "anything could be done" as an option to the illegal, unchecked immigration which was taken as a goal by right-wing political parties.
"The closer you keep doors, the more irregular routes that carry social chaos you encourage. It can be disrupted by a vicious cycle," she said.
The refugees are given Orientation Courses after the screening process at their departure, so they know what they can expect to receive when they arrive in the town that best suits their unique needs.
She and her sons Hanna, 28 years old, and Antoine, 26 years old ended up in the south-west city of Turin, Pinerolo, at 36,000.
The refugees are given accommodation, a food scholarschaft, language training and psychological assistance as well as legal protection when they arrive in Italy, and local volunteers and members of the church help with immediate problems such as bureaucracy, school children's enrollment and work counseling. The level of support tends to taper after six months and is also made harder by health problems. Depending on the case.
"It fosters inclusion to help refugees gain autonomy. It went very well with some exceptions," said Giovanni Comba, Chairman of the Waldensian Diaconate.
Hanna and Antoine both speak fine Italian after two years, their mother less. In the University of Turin, Hanna is studying international development, while Antoine has a paid internship in web development.
"If I feel like I am improving my life, I learn something new and build a career, and if my family is good, I can do that," Antoine said during a kitchen interview in his apartment.
Ms. Trotta said that it was a "point of honor" for the church to not proselytize newcomers.
But in the last three décades, many Protestants from Africa, the Philippines, South Korea, Southern America and a few joined the Waldensian church in fundamentally changing the "numbers and composition of many of our communities," she said. She was a community of hundreds of thousands of other migrants.
Dorothee Mack, a pastor of the Méthodist Church in Milan, was the chief of the bilingual English-Italian zoom service on a new Advent Sunday: 'We took up the task of trying to be a cohesive society while preserving differences," Her adorers are from fifteen countries.
"These new fraters and sisters have been experienced as a new blood of life, some of the Waldesian and Methodist churches have become smaller, something which makes our community livelier," she said.