Holy Water On Tap: Spigot Shut On Italian 'Acqua Benedetta' Fraud

Italian police have busted a nationwide operation that passed off ordinary water from local faucets as having special powers from such Catholic holy shrines as Lourdes and Fatima.

Flasks for collecting holy water from the cave of Massabielle in Lourdes (J-N Lafargue)
Flasks for collecting holy water from the cave of Massabielle in Lourdes (J-N Lafargue)
Guillaume Delacroix

ROME - Meet Enza Maria Ciccolo. The 71-year-old woman claims to be a biology researcher; on her website, she says she graduated from the University of Pisa and studied auriculotherapy (a form of acupuncture in which needles are placed in various points of the ear) in the French city of Lyon.

Two weeks ago, the Italian Carabinieri police unit specialized in Social Security fraud knocked on Ciccolo's door and discovered no less than 4,000 flasks containing tap water. Odd as it may have looked at first sight, it hardly looked like a crime scene -- except that the vials were ready to be passed off as holy water –"acqua benedetta"-- from pilgrimage sites like Lourdes (France), Montichiari (Italy), Fatima (Portugal) and Medjugorje (Bosnia Herzegovina). Going price per vial: 200 euros.

The water was stored all over Italy, from Milan to Bari. Ciccolo called the water "White Light" in reference to the apparitions of the Virgin Mary, but also as an allusion to the liquid's supposed capacity of synthesizing all the colors of the rainbow.

She assured that the sacred drink "could be reproduced over and over again." Nine drops of Lourdes water diluted in one liter of tap water were enough to make the water "effective" and thus enable the customer to "harmonize living matter" and "restore the link between man and his environment," the "Doctor" explained, citing imaginary studies by the Center for Research in Medical Bioclimatology of the University of Milan.

It is hard to believe that clients were gullible enough to buy the 200 euros flasks. Yet some 500 people -- from all kinds of social backgrounds-- have filed a complaint. Countless others were left scammed in silence. Among them were patients so desperate they sometimes traveled thousands of kilometers to be received by Dr. Ciccolo and her accomplices.

In total, 39 people were arrested, charged by the prosecutor in the eastern city of Ancona with fraud, personal injury,wrongful practice of medicine, conspiracy and illegal trade of products boasting therapeutic qualities.

Read the original article in French

Photo – Jean-Noël Lafargue

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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