Remarks by Giampaolo Silvestri, Secretary General of AVSI at the “Advancing and defending international religious freedom through diplomacy” symposium

Date 30.09.2020

Panel "diplomacy and international cooperation"


  • Samuel Brownback - U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom U.S. Department of State
  • Giampaolo Silvestri Secretary General AVSI Foundation
  • Monsignor Khaled Akasheh Bureau Chief for Islam Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
  • Moderator: John Allen President and Founder Crux

Remarks by Giampaolo SIlvestri about the role of international cooperation in advancing and defending religious freedom.


AVSI is a non-governmental organization founded in 1972; we have a history of over 45 years of activity in developing countries. Today we work in 33 countries especially in Sub Saharan Africa and the Great Lakes Region, in the Middle East and Latin America, with more than 200 projects and with 5 million direct beneficiaries and a staff of 2300 people; in 2019 we managed around 80 million euros.

A feature of AVSI is to work together with local partners, among them many Faith Based Organizations, in different fields: education, child protection, urban development, agriculture and interventions for refugees and migrants.


Our current mission and method find their roots in our history and identity, in our catholic faith. Following our mission, we implement cooperation projects in various sectors with a preferential focus on education. When we say “education” we mean a path in which the person is accompanied towards the discovery of his or her personal value and dignity, and towards the recognition that the other person is always a good, a resource.


We try to realize our projects respecting these priorities:

  • to start from the value of the person, who is never defined by the circumstances in which he or she lives
  • to consider the person always in his/her family and community context
  • to do with: accompany and let ourselves be accompanied, recognizing that we all share the same human experience
  • to involve all stakeholders: encourage the participation of beneficiaries, providers, partners, donors, and the private sector

In light of this framework, to respond to the title of this panel, I’d like to highlight some brief key points and then to share some of our concrete experiences.

  • Let me remember that every project of cooperation to development starts from the discovery of the centrality and dignity of the person. Without this fundamental principle, without a “protagonism” of the person, there is no chance of sustainable and durable development.
  • The centrality of the person is founded on freedom, the person’s dignity finds its consistency in his/her freedom.
  • And religious freedom is the first of all freedoms

Now let me explain our approach: we are not an advocacy organization, but we work with our boots on the ground, directly in the field.

We implement development projects starting always from respect for the dignity of the human being, so that we try to ensure that all people, even the most vulnerable, experience freedom.

Our job is not to talk about or study freedom.

But in our daily action among people, we try to create the conditions that let people feel and touch what this freedom means, even in plural societies with different religious components. We try to build communities where people can experience mutual respect and mutual acceptance.

How does it happen? How do we implement projects that defend the human being and the expression of religious freedom?

Let’s share some examples from the field:

1. Education in Dadaab

We have been working in the refugee camp of Dadaab, Kenya, since 2009. In this region Islamist terrorists are active and spread terror among the local communities. But here the common work between Christians and Muslims has created the conditions for children to get a quality education, to live the experience of Boy and Girl Scouts that opened them to a new way to consider the other person as someone to respect and accept, even if she or he belongs to a different religion. This project is supported by the State Department through Bureau of Population Refugees Migrants (BPRM).

We let children experience the strength of free communities where everybody can express herself/himself in a free way. They see and recognize this value already in action, starting from a personal experience of a seed of religious freedom.

2. Open Hospitals in Syria

Thank to this project, three Catholic-run hospitals have been providing life-saving services free of charge to vulnerable Syrians since 2017.

All the state hospitals in Syria are having a lot of difficulties and this project, promoted by Cardinal Zenari and financed especially by private donations, is helping catholic hospitals to go on and guarantee free medical care to the most vulnerable people. 90% of the beneficiaries are Muslim. This is very important considering the circumstances in Syria.

There is no difference, no discrimination, based on religious identity of the patients. A way to rebuild social cohesion.

This is a key point for us in our daily work: also, in a context where there are conflicts between minorities and majorities, we think that all people have the same rights and duties, as they are citizens of the same community, and we are called to let them see that our services are equal for everybody, with no distinction or privilege.

This is not easy everywhere, but we can witness that this approach is helpful to creating environments where religious freedom can put down roots and flourish.

3. Qaraqosh in Iraq, rebuilding houses and a plural community

Qaraqosh is one of the villages destroyed by ISIS in 2014. We have been working here since its liberation in 2016 to rebuild houses, farms and above all the community.

Also, with support from the State Department through BPRM, AVSI is able to provide relief, stabilization and recovery assistance to religious minorities who have been targeted by extremists, so that they can survive as a people. Survival as a people is necessary for them to continue to exercise their religious freedom. By supporting the agricultural sector and recovery of businesses, we are also able to promote peaceful coexistence, giving communities and each person the opportunity to work side-by-side, do business together, etc. AVSI also recognizes the human need for encounters between groups and positive social interaction and create spaces for this to happen, such as the community gardens in Qaraqosh.

A nota bene: religious freedom is first of all a human right of the person and not of a religious community, otherwise there is the risk to reduce religious freedom to the respect of a space for worship.

The majority of the population in Qaraqosh had always been Christian, with a Muslim minority. After the liberation from Isis there was the risk to create an ethnically cleansed community. We wanted to contribute to prevent that outcome: one of the conditions of the project was that a percentage of the beneficiaries was Muslim.

This is another example of what we consider a community: a place where the person can live the concrete experience of recognizing and accepting differences, and discovering the richness it can offer to everybody.

This is again the fertile ground for religious freedom.

Religious freedom is a conditio sine qua non for development.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these reflections. We are grateful to the effort of the US State Department, through PRM, as well as USAID to enable us to carry out these projects, together with the support of our many donors and the Church. In particular, we express our appreciation for USAID’s New Partnerships Initiative for making sure that aid actually reaches Christians and other religious minitories and the local organizations working with and for them, including faith-based organizations.