La Stampa ("The Press") is a top Italian daily founded in 1867 under the name Gazzetta Piemontese. Based in Turin, La Stampa is owned by the Fiat Group and distributed in many other European countries.
Massimo Giannini*

Bravo Italy For World’s Strictest Vaccine Mandate - But Where’s Mario?

Italy's new "Super Green Pass" is great, but where's "Super Mario"? Such a sweeping measure, which requires workers to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, risks encroaching on the fundamental right to work. It's necessary right now, but also needs Prime Minister Mario Draghi to explain why.


ROME — There is not a single good reason to criticize Italy's new "Super Green Pass", the new decree announced on Thursday that will mandate more than 20 million of the country's workers to prove they've tested negative to COVID-19 or that they've been vaccinated to work, beginning Oct 15.

It is the right thing to do in a country locked in a decisive, long and painful fight against the pandemic. Some 10 million Italians still haven't been immunized and the pace of the vaccine rollout has declined significantly in September, with the number of shots administered daily dropping from 142,000 to about 70,000.

We have written it many times and repeat it now: Against the backdrop of possible new restrictions in the winter, the mandatory "green pass" is no "health dictatorship," but a way to keep the economy open and strike a fair balance between the freedom of a few and everyone's right to health. Extending it to employees and self-employed people is not discrimination. It is protection and prevention.

There are times in the life of a nation when taking the ultimate responsibility is called for.

But precisely because of the significance of this measure, Prime Minister Mario Draghi's silence on it was striking. He should have personally explained this decree to Italians. Instead, the news was announced by government cabinet ministers in a press conference. Draghi's absence was likely a way to underline that all the four political parties underpinning his government, including Matteo Salvini's far-right Lega Party, agreed on the measure.

But surely this is not enough. There are times in the life of a nation when taking the ultimate responsibility is called for, and this is one of those. We stand again at a crucial stage of Italy's fight against the virus, and the "Super Green Pass" calls into question our most precious asset beyond life: work, with its rights and duties. With an entire community of skeptics needing to be convinced and engaged, a prime minister worthy of that title must put not only his signature on it — but also his face.

*Giannini is La Stampa's editor-in-chief

Mattia Feltri

Food Or Safety? Lockdown And Migrant Laborers In Italy

Even as the total number of cases of COVID-19 decreased In Italy, an outbreak flared up in the southern province of Caserta among migrant agricultural laborers. Writing in the Italian daily La Stampa, Mattia Feltri recounts how, once again, the pandemic is bringing long-simmering tensions, economic inequity and social injustice to the surface.

Almost all of the agricultural laborers of Mondragone, in the southern Italian province of Caserta come from Novi Zagora, Bulgaria. They were lured to Italy by human traffickers, thinking they would make decent money here. They stay in large, run-down tower blocks formerly owned by Cirio, the Italian multinational known for its canned vegetables and sauces. They come down from their apartments at 4:30 a.m. to be loaded into trucks and taken to fields owned by Italian farmers, where they pick green beans.

Their pay ranges between 2 and 4 euros per hour. Or rather, the men's pay does: Women make less, between 1 and 2 euros per hour. Since they can't leave the kids home alone, sometimes they take them along for the day. But the children are not strong and can't work long hours, so the pay goes down to 0.50 to 0.75 euros an hour.

The Bulgarians go out anyway because if they don't work, they can't eat.

The normal workday lasts seven or eight hours, but if the harvest is abundant, it can reach 12 hours. The laborers make a bit more money and are happy. Recruiters pay them in the evening. On a good day, husband and wife can make 50 euros, from which the recruiters subtract a cut from themselves, to cover transport fees and rent.

Unions have been denouncing this exploitation — or slavery — for a long time, and because they can't seem to change the situation, they wait outside the tower blocks in the morning, at least to hand out water bottles and caps to protect the laborers from the scorching sun.

And now, a coronavirus cluster has broken out in the apartments where they live: People can't go in or out at least until July 7. But the Bulgarians go out anyway because if they don't work, they can't eat. The other Mondragone residents protested against it, and a few incidents of violence flared. An angry crowd cordoned off the perimeter. Chairs were thrown from a balcony, and rocks flung the other way, smashing windows. So the Italian government decided to send in the army, committed as always to enforcing the law.

Andrea Rossi

As COVID-19 Starts To Spiral, A Grim View From A Doctor In Turin

Grueling shifts, grave warnings and the spectre of having to choose between the living and the dead.

TURIN — How are you? "So-so ..." A flat, exhausted voice replies. The young doctor speaking has come from an intensive care unit in Turin, dragging herself slowly and methodically, as if to give shape to her weary frame.

"We're doing grueling shifts; I've lost count of the hours. And more and more people are coming. More and more," she says. "This contagion must be slowed down at all costs. But it doesn't depend on us, it depends on all of you. Get this message across: It's the only thing that matters." We're trying.

So here we are at this special Covid-19 hospital, facing the flood of victims of the new virus, hoping there will not be too much water because if the wave of patients mounts too high, there is no system that can withstand it. "We have reorganized the spaces and the people: the departments used for normal surgical operations have been transformed into intensive care, the operating room staff has moved to emergency services."

The new set-up faces a much more complex tide than it might seem from what you read. The doctor explains: "It is not true that there are only elderly people. There are many young people too. And it's not true that you can get infected only by being in close contact; sometimes a dinner is enough."

There are choices a doctor never wants to make.

This is why the waters are rising, and it's beginning to require choices a doctor never wants to make. "We can only respond with available resources." The ICU doctors received a document: 15 pages with a title that might send shivers down your spine: Recommendations of clinical ethics for admission to intensive treatments, and for their suspension in exceptional conditions of disparity between needs and available resources. It is the same protocol that regulates disaster medicine, the doctor explains. "You have to be pragmatic. The means are scarce — in some hospitals they're already running low, in others they will be soon."

Sometimes pragmatic means ruthless; We're talking about distributive justice. "If beds and doctors become scarce, the criterion no longer will be taking care of the first patient who arrives or of the one in more critical condition, but favors the greatest life expectancy." Age, type and severity of illness, pre-existing conditions, compromised organs.

"The availability of resources does not usually go into the evaluation of cases until resources become so scarce that they do not allow us to treat all patients," explains the doctor. "The shifts are exhausting. Our life has no sense of space or time. We are putting our families out, and we are also putting them in danger: Asking our parents to look after the children while we are at work means asking them to put their health at risk."

This is also why it is important that this great collective sacrifice is not done in vain or lead us to an inhuman choice, such as letting go of one life to save another one more "probable" to survive. "Again, it doesn't just depend on us, unfortunately," the doctor repeats. "We are working hard, but limiting the contagion depends on what happens outside of here. On all of you."

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Leonardo Di Paco

If Penguins Could Text: African Birds Compress Language Like Humans

The tendency to compress language belongs not only to humans, but also to this particular African penguin species’ way of communication.

TURIN — Very different species are sometimes united by the use of common linguistic patterns. The Cape penguins are known as "jackass penguins' because their particular call is so similar to the donkey's bray. But their language, notably their use of the syllables at their disposition to speak in the most "economical" way, is strikingly similar to humans.

The discovery, published in the prestigious Biology Letters scientific journal, is the work of two Italian scholars. University of Turin researcher Livio Favaro and Professor Marco Gamba, from the Department of Life Sciences and Systems Biology, have shown that the tendency to compress language — when writing text messages, for example — belongs not only to humans, but also to this particular penguin species' way of communication.

"Recent studies have shown that animals genetically very close to humans, such as primates, reflect this law in their organization. This is found, for example, in gibbons and macaques," explain the two scholars.

The discovery marks the first time this language rule is observed in a species other than primates.

During their breeding period, male Cape penguins — the only penguin species living on the African continent — produce vocalizations consisting of different types of syllables associated with particular movements. They consist of vocalizations with two types of functions. The first is territorial defense, while the second is to attract females and convince them to form a stable couple.

"Previous research had already shown that the spectro-temporal characteristics of these syllables encode information about the speaker," the two researchers write.

African penguins in Boulders Beach, South Africa — Photo: Kallerna

By analyzing vocalizations of a group of penguins in captivity, Favaro and his group discovered that adult penguins have a particular type of call to express "detachment" or "sense of isolation" from the group. They called them "contact calls." These calls are different from those that penguins use during fights for territorial defense, and from those expressed during mating time or nesting.

Interestingly, in their vocal sequences, penguins always keep several long syllabic elements useful to underline their body size. This aspect plays a fundamental role during breeding periods.

Words we use most in our language tend to be short.

Some of these syllables contain information correlated to the penguin's physical size "and tell us how big the male is and how capable he is of being a good partner: strong, a brave hunter, and able to protect the nest."

Precisely by continuing to study hundreds of vocalizations, researchers realized that they mirrored human linguistic principles.

"These laws tell us that in communication systems and the acoustic elements that are most frequently used, there is a tendency to compress information and to minimize," they write.

This fact explains why the words we use most in our language tend to be short. "I, You, We, You" or all conjunctions are the most effective examples. Conversely, long words are less frequently used.

"The most important thing to keep in mind is that, when we refer to animal vocal sequences, we do not refer to complex lexical structures. We must always be very careful to highlight the fact that these vocal sequences, unlike human language, do not have precise semantics or syntax," write Favaro and Gamba.

That's why "parallelism with humans has to be sought in terms of the duration of acoustic elements and the proportion of their use. What emerges from our research is that we have a pattern of the production of these vocal signals which follows a linguistic vision similar to that of human language. Above all, they follow a common principle: when the elements conveyed become numerous, shorter sequences are used. This rule occurs in all languages; the mechanism of communication is always the same."

Flavia Perina

In Italy, An Eternal Glass Ceiling For Women Politicians

It's not that Italian women don't enter politics. But they don't, for the most part, rise through the ranks to national leadership positions. Why?


ROME — This month's local elections have changed not only the face, but also gender, of leadership in 3,825 Italian municipalities. Exactly 628 towns and cities now have women mayors, with almost all of the candidates having beaten male opponents.

Still, this is a country that continues to agree apparently with Italy's former head of civil protection agency Guido Bertolaso, who once said of the possibility of Giorgia Meloni becoming mayor of Rome: "A mother cannot dedicate herself to such a terrible job." And the reality is that the overall percentage of women mayors is a rather modest 16.4%.

You show off, show your qualities and wait for the jury to choose you.

Looking back, however, we do see progress: It turns out that in the last 30 years, the number of female mayors has increased sevenfold and that one municipality in three has been run by a woman in recent times.

The next question is: Where did these women end up? And what are they doing now? How come at some point they disappear instead of becoming national cabinet ministers, party leaders, heads of government?

Marta Dassù of the Aspen Institute recently wrote in La Stampa how in Europe, a generation of "cultured, pragmatic and very determined" women has taken power everywhere, radically changing politics in the process. And it hasn't been limited to northern European countries. Inés Arrimadas, the rising young leader of the Ciudadanos party in Catalonia, convinced her husband, who serves as a member of Parliament for another party, to leave politics in order to avoid any risk of a conflict of interest. Could you imagine a woman like that in Italy? Of course. Except that after a certain point the ascent slows down, and they never end up making it to the top.

Chiara Appendino​, the current mayor of Turin. — Photo: ActuaLitté

The list of talented Italian women held down by the country's political parties is very long indeed. Two examples from the left: Valeria Mancinelli of Ancona, 2018 winner of the World Mayors Prize, whom the party chiefs sent on TV a couple of times. Very good, calm, quick on her feet — and then gone from sight as soon as the attention from the prize died down. Giusi Nicolini, former mayor of Lampedusa, brought by Matteo Renzi to President Obama as a symbol of Italian excellence, co-opted in the party echelons, left without any real responsibility to eventually vanish from view.

On the right, it's usually the same. Titles and awards are distributed generously, but if there is true experience, independence of thought, it usually becomes impossible to go beyond. There are two exceptions of note: the above-mentioned Meloni, who is busy building a party of its own, and Mara Carfagna, who rose through the ranks of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party with choices that bucked the party line, proposing herself as an alternative to the prevailing machismo.

After a certain point the ascent slows down, and women politicians never end up making it to the top.

Silvia Botti, the editor-in-chief of the architecture and design magazine Abitare, has worked extensively for women and knows the psychology of both women and politicians. She is convinced that the real problem is that Italians have an idea about the competition for power that is too similar to that of a beauty contest. "You show off, show your qualities and wait for the jury to choose you." In Europe, competing is an ongoing contest, and women have long since learned how to do it. "If you want a place, a role, you have to beat the others to get it, no jury will assign it to you," she says.

Botti adds that our model in Italy is so frozen within the principle of co-optation that often those with the European standard, the educated, the pragmatic, decide, precisely because of who they are, face the fatal question "Is it going to be worth it?" to try to make it in politics. And the answer, then, is no, it's not worth it — better to take my commitment elsewhere.

Migrant Lives
Fabio Albanese

How Migrants' Cellphones Help Unmask Smuggler Tactics

CATANIA — On the horizon, the Libyan coast is still visible — perhaps it's the area around Zuwarah along the border with Tunisia — suggesting that the small wooden boat carrying migrants across the Mediterranean departed in plain daylight.

Compared to the decrepit inflatable dinghies that often sink in these waters, this one is barely crowded. One of the passengers smiles in the knowledge that the long and treacherous voyage will ultimately lead to a better life abroad. Some wear unconvincing life jackets. And the youngest migrants hide in the boat's small bilge. There is little conversation: only some prayers, the roar of the motor, and the sound of the waves.

All of this information is gleaned from a cellphone video taken by one of the refugees, probably in the dramatic days around Easter, when ships operated by the Italian Coast Guard and Navy, the European Union border agency Frontex, and NGOs saved some 8,300 people in dozens of rescue missions.

With these kinds of videos and photographs, migrants inadvertently document information that could be vital to Italian authorities investigating migrant smuggling across the Mediterranean. The videos also provide evidence supporting migrants' own stories about their experiences crossing from Libya to Italy.

Prosecutors and investigators say things have changed since 2016, the worst year on record, when nearly 5,100 migrants died at sea. They say traffickers seem to have increased their profits while reducing their risks. For migrants, though, the risks have only risen.

One of the new techniques being employed by the traffickers, as the video suggests, is to send a Jet Ski alongside the migrants to guide them toward rescue ships that operate outside Libyan waters. The drivers then use the Jet Ski to abandon ship.

Migrants mostly film videos to send to friends and relatives living in Europe, to let them know they're on their way. At migrant reception centers, authorities sometimes seize videos that provide information for an investigation. In some cases migrants refuse to show the videos, or succeed in hiding them from the police.

This video was shot on a particularly clear and sunny day. The water is calm. The trip from Libya is often much more dangerous, and this voyage seems particularly untroubled. When the owner of the cellphone turns the camera towards the man steering the boat he's told to stop filming. A Jet Ski pulls up alongside and the trafficker steering the boat disembarks, leaving the migrants alone at the helm. The Jet Ski returns to Libya as the boat continues onwards to its destination.

Soon enough the migrants will be intercepted and rescued by a ship run by the French organizations SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders. Some migrants say that being rescued by an NGO ship marks the end of their difficult journey, whereas being intercepted by military vessels would extend their troubles.

The phone starts filming again and reveals more details about the dangerous voyage between Libya and Italy. Onboard the rescue ship the sea is no longer a source of fear, and migrants sing and celebrate on the deck with new clothes and blankets on their shoulders. Now they eagerly wait to dock at a port in southern Italy, on the mainland, ready to seize the new life that awaits them in Europe.

food / travel

In The Kitchen Of The Future, 3D Printers Prepare Your Food

CAGLIARI — Danilo Spiga isn't your everyday chef. He is a trained engineer and all the dishes he cooks are crafted by 3D printers.

None of the diners were sick after Spiga's meal at a laboratory in the Italian city of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia. No one suffered from allergies or food poisoning or even a mild stomach ache.

"Everything we ate was great. Can we have seconds?" asks one woman, who had been skeptical at the start of the meal. "If I hadn't seen the dishes prepared with my own eyes, I would never have believed this crostino was made by a 3D printer. I had heard about it on TV but I imagined it would taste like plastic."

The crostino was made with vegetable charcoal enriched with cream cheese. It was delicious despite its artificial origin.

Spiga replaces recipes with engineering projects and substitutes chopping boards with machines. Doing so, he gives life to bold new creations while still using traditional ingredients.

Apparently, in the kitchen of the future, cables and hard drives are more necessary than forks and knives.

The dinner menu was rich and varied, including at least 10 types of pasta. "The ingredients are the same as regular pasta, flour and water, but in different proportions," says Spiga. "There are still limits to the process, and the pasta still needs to be cooked after we've printed it. The printer cannot cook dishes and we're still researching how this can be done but many plates come out of the printer ready to be eaten."

The pasta still needs to be cooked after it was printed — Photo: Scuola di Pasta

Spiga works at the laboratories of Sardegna Ricerche, which is run by the Sardinian regional government. Researchers at the lab have used their creativity to produce traditional Italian dishes that look and taste exactly like their handmade counterparts. Their mozzarella is one such example. "So far, it's been the most difficult to create but the final product is excellent and we've been able to produce it in extraordinary shapes and sizes," says Spiga.

"It's an understatement to say that everything we ate was delicious," says Valeria Casti, one of the guests at the tasting dinner. "This meal dispelled any notions we had that industrial food is tasteless and inauthentic."

For all the advantages of the 3D printer, Spiga's kitchen still requires traditional instruments like a ladle and a stove. He is an engineer but the chef's role is anything but obsolete. The printer takes commands from a software program but the ingredients must first be prepared by an experienced cook. Just like regular printers, food printers need the culinary equivalent of ink in their cartridges — a special component prepared by a chef.

Tradition doesn't fear technology because you can still maintain the same level of quality.

This new type of food is made possible by tweaking the proportions of ingredients in traditional recipes. The "ink" is inserted in a syringe-shaped capsule and placed on the printer's nozzle, which enables it to print the recipe.

Sardegna Ricerche has produced more than just pasta and mozzarella. The lab has created 3D-printed versions of ricotta, torrone nougat, almond paste, and even chocolate. All of these creations look different from hand-prepared versions but they taste nearly the same. Leonildo Contis, a guest at the tasting, and a pastry chef who runs a bakery opened 90 years ago by his grandparents, approves of the lab's innovative approach to dessert.

"Tradition doesn't fear technology because you can still maintain the same level of quality," he says. "I could see myself using one of these machines in my own pastry shop. It would add a lot of imagination to our products and allow us to make them in shapes that a human hand cannot create."

Roberto Flore, a celebrated Sardinian chef based in Denmark, observes this experiment from a distance but refuses to taste the food. "I'm very curious about this but I don't think that culinary tradition should bend to the whims of technology," he says. "The only way to transmit a dish's millenary taste from the recipe to the plate is with your own hands."

Unlike Flore, researchers at Sardegna Ricerche see few temporal limits to their culinary ambitions. They're already experimenting with printing the traditional Sardinian fish roe, bottarga.

food / travel
Claudio Gallo

Kish, Iranian Oasis Of Freedom Far From Pious Mainland

KISH â€" The island of Kish is a far cry from the rest of Iran. Although it’s just 19 kilometers from the mainland, this Persian Gulf outpost features the kind of open hedonism that would be shocking in other parts of the country.

As hard-line politicians and religious figures target so-called Western imports such as concerts, which have increasingly been allowed under President Hassan Rouhani, moderate Iranians are escaping to Kish, a place where gathering to listen to music goes unquestioned. In the seaside amphitheater on the eastern side of the island and in Kish's large hotels, foreign musicians dominate the scene. Among the most popular are the Irish-English singer Chris de Burgh and the Greek-American pianist Yanni.

Kish's history is ancient like the rest of the country. The island only became a tourist hotspot shortly before the Islamic revolution in 1979. The last Shah of Iran wanted to transform Kish, where there was only dirt at the time, into a luxury oasis for billionaires replete with golf courses and casinos. He envisioned two Concorde planes shuttling elites to the island from Paris and London. Sure enough, Kish drew famous patrons in those days, including Elie de Rothschild, scion of an illustrious French family.

The revolution put an end to the Shah's brief experiment â€" until now. Kish today boasts large hotels and a 20-year tax exemption. Although it has outlawed bikinis and casinos, the island is home to several shopping malls and wants to compete with Persian Gulf destinations like Dubai. Beaches here are segregated by sex but, at night, you can see groups of young people getting "dangerously" close to each other in the water and girls having their photographs taken by their boyfriends.

Enormous hotels and malls continue to sprout across the flat surface of the island, part of a construction boom built by underpaid Afghan workers. The malls are devoid of Western labels. Instead, they are stocked with brands that have names such as "Veronica Armani" and "Berlusconi.”

The pier in Kish â€" Photo: Ivan Mlinaric

Kish is unique in Iran for its pristine streets lined with flowers, SUVs and gleaming Toyota cabs. Unlike the mainland, the 50 km/hr speed limit is strictly enforced here with the help of cameras and heavy fines. Although Iran has a notoriously strict visa policy for foreign tourists, it’s easy to obtain a 14-day visa for Kish that doesn't allow entry to the mainland. About 1.5 million tourists visit the island every year, especially before Christmas.

The island's western coast is home to Kish's native Sunni residents, who live in small houses with low ceilings. They make up about 15% of the population and mainly work as fishermen. There are four Sunni mosques and an Arab bazaar. Locals say they are happy and optimistic about their future. As Sunnis living in a Shia theocracy like Iran, they aren't able to express much discontent. But they are better off than Shiites in neighboring Sunni-ruled Bahrain.

Mahmoud, 51, has a long black beard. He says he moved to Kish 10 years ago from the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan where he says there's no work because the government marginalizes his community â€" the Baloch minority.

“I own a small shop and I feel at home," he says of his life on Kish.

"Even we Sunnis take part in Ashura, the most pious fast,” he says in reference to the Shia day of atonement. That's a bit hard to believe, but even the hidden pleasures of Kish cannot change the public religious pressures of modern Iran.


Italian Doctor Invents Device To Save Hearts From Afar

ALESSANDRIA â€" A small portable tool developed in Italy now allows doctors to treat patients with heart conditions in remote areas that don’t have access to medical facilities. A 27-year-old doctor, Alessandro Faragli, and his colleague, Edoardo La Porta, a nephrologist, created the imaging device known as Impedance App.

The device measures bio-impedance or how much the body impedes the flow of electric current. While fat resists high current flow, blood doesn’t restrict it as much.

“Patients with conditions like heart failure are completely dependent on hospitals to measure bio-impedance,” Faragli told Italian newspaper La Stampa. “This instrument is portable, easy to use, and non-invasive.”

Faragli developed the device after years of studying chronic heart failure, a condition that afflicted his father for more than a decade, he told the paper.

Impedance App, which consists of two electrodes and a small belt, does high-quality imaging within two minutes. The device rapidly processes and sends exam results and graphs to a doctor’s smartphone, allowing him or her to monitor their patient’s condition from a distance.

“Impedance can help doctors and patients interact more, reduce re-hospitalization rates, and ensure a higher quality of life,” Faragli told the daily. “All of this reduces costs too.”

During his work on a similar project for a portable electrocardiogram named D-Heart in southern Senegal, Faragli realized that portable imaging devices could save lives by reaching patients who otherwise wouldn’t have access medical care.

Faragli hopes that these portable medical devices can ultimately work toward reducing patient mortality. By improving access to medicine and treatment for people in the most remote areas of the world, devices like D-Heart and Impedance App could just achieve that.

Paolo Mastrolilli

Pope Francis And Barack Obama, Why The White House Believes

On the eve of the pontiff’s visit to the United States, confidential Obama administration documents reveal a remarkable harmony with Francis’ objectives.

NEW YORK â€" When preparing for President Barack Obama’s first meeting with Pope Francis last March in the Vatican, White House and State Department staff made a prediction. “Pope Francis' diplomatic legacy is still being built, but the ‘pastoral conversion’ which is the hallmark of his pontificate is taking shape in important ways. The pope’s grip on the world stage means that his pastoral actions will have widespread political implications,” the document reads.

These words are among the sensitive and confidential documents obtained by La Stampa that help to understand the growing alliance between the United States and the Holy See, one that Washington hopes to consolidate when Francis arrives on Sept. 22 for his first visit as pope.

Common themes

The reports were compiled to provide Obama with an overview on the pope himself and the structure of the Vatican and then elaborate on several areas of common interest and potential collaboration, including the fight against poverty and hunger, climate change, the war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, relations with Cuba and human trafficking.

The document also touches on the fight against poverty and income inequality, noting that since Pope Francis' election in March 2013, he has attracted the world’s attention with his unique style of leadership, clear humanity and empathy and devotion to the poor. While strengthening the Church’s traditional teaching, he has clarified that attention given to controversial social issues like abortion and gay marriage should not overshadow other pastoral duties, such as looking after the poor, the ill and the needy.

The grounds for further cooperation lie with a pope who has changed his priorities, placing “life issues” at least on the same level of importance as other social issues that also concern the White House. On that note, the report recalls Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation that calls for the “elimination of the structural causes of poverty," and denounces "a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

The Pope shows his popular touch in Brazil â€" Photo: George Martell/Pilot New Media

Obama’s counselors note that “some observers saw this exhortation as a challenge to the excesses of capitalism,” but dismiss the accusations of Marxism it has attracted, emphasizing that Francis' views on the economy are "rooted in thousands of years of Catholic doctrine. Human well-being is determined by moral choices, and the Church must always focus on defending the poor.” This focus on "human dignity”, the report adds, is common Catholic vernacular, but by setting a personal example, Francis touches the issue in "striking" ways.

On the environment

The White House documents note that the Vatican sees protecting the environment as a “moral duty” and express high hopes for the pope’s new encyclical on the environment, which was bitterly criticized by conservatives in the U.S. The Holy See considers issues of political economy and the environment to be strongly linked, and the next apostolic exhortation will draw attention to this connection. The Vatican publicly recognized the serious and potentially irreversible effects of global warming.

On Syria, Obama’s staff support an approach of helping people escape extremism. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they advocate “direct negotiations" toward a two-state solution. When Secretary of State John Kerry â€" himself, a Catholic â€" conducted months of determined negotiations, Pope Francis spoke in support of the United States’ efforts to restart a dialogue on various occasions.

From Havana to Rome

The U.S. document obtained by La Stampa relating to Cuba offers a glimpse of what were then secret negotiations to restore diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington, with the Vatican ultimately playing a key role as mediator. “We respect the Vatican’s point of view regarding the economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Cuba but we note that despite these sanctions, the U.S. is one of the island’s main trade partners. We are Cuba’s first or second source of food imports every year.”

But Washington remained firm that rather than the embargo, the roots of Cuba’s difficulties lie in the politics and actions of its government. On this basis, the Vatican would subsequently host secret talks in Rome that led to the historic reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two neighbors.

Raul Castro and Obama in Panama City in April â€" Photo: Estudio Revolucion/Xinhua/ZUMA

The convergence between Washington and the Vatican is very strong in other issues as well, including initiatives against hunger, the fight against human trafficking â€" a form of modern slavery that has exploded during the migration phenomenon â€" and the persecution of religious minorities.

Washington notes how Francis has managed to capture the attention of Catholics and non-Catholics alike around the world. "In situations of conflict, he will continue to be a voice for reconciliation. Concern over the persecution of Christians will push the Church towards pragmatic policies," the document reads. "Where religious freedom is restricted, as it is in China, Francis will seek pastoral opportunities to reach out to faithful, avoiding clashes.”

There will be plenty to discuss next week in Washington, and even before Francis and Obama shake hands there is plenty to agree on.

Francesca Paci

'At War With ISIS' - Sunni Islam's Spiritual Leader El-Tayeb Speaks Out

La Stampa takes on big questions in Muslim world with Sunni Islam's highest authority, who was at a conference in Italy, his first trip to Europe since taking his post in Cairo.

FLORENCE â€" Ahmed el-Tayeb is the Grand Imam of Cairo's Al Azhar University, which is sometimes called the Vatican of the Sunni World. He is considered by many to be the highest authority in Sunni Islam. While he was in Italy for an inter-religious dialogue hosted by the Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio, La Stampa spoke to el-Tayeb about the Sunni-Shia conflict, ISIS, and the decline of political Islam.

“In the West," he said, "You don’t know what we’re going through in the Middle East. It's a phase of backwardness that could set us back more than a century.”

LA STAMPA: What are your views on the Turkish election and the loss of votes for the AKP, a party unpopular in Cairo for its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood?

AHMED EL-TAYEB: I’m not a politician and I will stay silent on Turkey, but I think you should look at the bigger picture. We’re living a period of great tension between the West and the Islamic world.

In the Koran, politics and religion overlap. Regarding President el-Sisi"s call for a "religious revolution", do you think a reform of Islam should include a separation of religion and state?

Politics and religion use different methods. Politics generally has vested interests because it manages public life and must make concessions. Religion is involved in the ethical sphere, and on ethics you cannot make concessions. Religion is a bastion, and if politics follows the wrong path then religion has a duty to bring it back to order.

Is the way the ISIS caliphate uses religion a challenge to Al Azhar's authority?

Al Azhar is not a religious institution, it is an educational institution under Islamic teaching and principles. These armed movements are outside Islam and challenge Islamic thought and teaching. Al Azhar is at war with ISIS. We do not have military, political, or diplomatic tools, but we do have scientific tools at our disposal, and we want to arm young people with the correct interpretation of Islam. The West must understand the difference between armed groups and true Islam. Much blood has been shed by other religions too.

So ISIS is taking Islam hostage, but Saudi Arabia is the official face of Islam. Can you talk of reform without questioning the 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison doled out by Riyadh to the condemned “apostate” blogger Raif Badawi?

I don’t know enough about it. But I’m in Italy and I respect Italian laws, so you should do the same when you are in other countries. In the Saudi case a tribunal decided on a sentence for a crime; it’s the law that must be followed and it’s not a case of violence outside of the political realm. Even in Italy there are those who deem some judicial decisions cruel and unjust.

After the barbaric execution of the Jordanian pilot at the hands of ISIS, you said you deemed it a crime worthy of crucifixion. As the public face for an official Islam that renounces violence, shouldn’t you abstain from such violent language?

There was a misunderstanding. Al Azhar has never issued any death sentences. But under Sharia law, anyone who kills, rapes women, or harms the innocent must be treated as a criminal. Then it is the government that decides the punishment. All legal systems around the world seek to reprimand those who violate the law, even the Torah provides repressive measures for criminals.

Many, including the Muslim Brotherhood, refuse to recognize the authority of Al Azhar because they see it as a wing of the Egyptian government.

Al Azhar is an independent institution, as is written in the Egyptian constitution. I am an autonomous individual and no one can remove me from office. When you hear accusations of this nature against us you can be sure that they come from groups like the Brotherhood.

Federico Varese

On Its 50th Anniversary, An Appreciation Of John Le Carre's Classic Spy Novel

CORNWALL — Every year we holiday in a small village in Cornwall, where there’s a church, the odd gift shop, a gastro pub and a bar. From the main street, concrete steps lead to a beach that is almost always deserted, and buffeted by the wind. The few brave souls who venture into the water make sure to don wetsuits. We, however, are content to roam freely on the unspoiled sand, waiting for the tide to go out and allow us access to the coastline’s second bay.

The “we” is a somewhat disparate group of people: a Siberian grandma, two Anglo-American children and a Russian mother, plus a suitcase full of books. This year my wife Galina read, with tears in her eyes, The Reason I Jump, written by a 13-year-old Japanese boy, Naoki Higashida, who has managed to escape the prison of autism and recount his inner life. The book was recommended to us by family friends who live around here, in a large house that stands high at the edge of the earth. I re-read The Spy who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré. It is hard to say why, for the third time, I picked up this classic of English literature. Perhaps because I associate Cornwall with Le Carré, who has lived here for 30 years. Perhaps because it is a book that creates a long-lasting, incurable addiction.

The story is rather complex: Alec Leamas pretends to have been sacked acrimoniously from Her Majesty’s Circus (Le Carré refers to British Intelligence as “the Circus”) with the aim of getting himself recruited by the East German Secret Service in order to discredit their agent, the athletic, ice-cold blond, Hans-Dieter Mundt, a man “barren of humour or fantasy.” To lend his transformation credibility, Leamas drinks like a fish, comes to blows with a grocer and ends up in prison. During his descent into hell, he falls in (requited) love with a young, unsuspecting, communist librarian, Liz Gold.

After being recruited and brought across the curtain, Leamas is reunited with Liz in a secret tribunal of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). That’s when Leamas is unmasked as a British government spy, and Liz is accused of being his accomplice. The wall of accusations against Mundt collapses. Mundt’s deputy, Fiedler, who had believed Leamas, is discredited and sentenced to death. The dramatic twist comes in the novel’s final pages: Leamas realizes he has been betrayed by his superiors so as to save Mundt, who works for British Intelligence. Both Leamas and Liz (as well as Fiedler) are sacrificed in this cunning plan.

The reader embarking on the novel for a third time is perfectly acquainted with Alec Leamas, “a short man with iron-grey hair, and the physique of a swimmer,” and is thus free to concentrate on the story’s real victims: Fiedler and Liz. While Mundt makes a seamless transition from Nazi Germany bigwig to GDR bigwig, his deputy, Fiedler, returns from Canada because he believes in the “cause.” But Fiedler, who upholds the charge against Mundt, is not the German equivalent of Stalinist prosecutors in the show trials of the period between 1936 and 1938. Fiedler continues to feel compassion toward his fellow men. During the secret tribunal, in his capacity as interrogator, Fiedler realizes Liz is innocent and implores the tribunal president to let her go.

“Fiedler seemed to wake from the reverie into which he had sunk. ... His deep brown eyes rested on her for a moment, and he smiled very slightly, as if in recognition of her race. ... ‘She knows nothing,’ Fiedler said. ‘Leamas is right, let her go.’ His voice was tired.”

Fiedler recognizes one of his own in Liz, someone who has the courage to look power in the face and tell the truth. When Fiedler suggests freeing Liz, the president of the tribunal retorts: “You realize what you are saying?” Freeing an innocent person is unthinkable.

Both Liz and Fiedler, besides being communists, are Jews. In The Spy, the victims of Nazi insanity continue to be sacrificed in the name of superior strategies. Just as the allies refused to bomb the railway line leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau, so too do they still protect the Nazi Mundt, Le Carré seems to be telling us.

There are myriad reasons why The Spy continues to be a an important political book for our times. Even today, the ideals of democracy are being compromised by those who should defend them, and innocent people are incarcerated for telling the truth, in Moscow and Washington alike.

But there is a more personal reason why, year after year, I go back to reading John Le Carré. That house standing high at the edge of the earth, in Land’s End, is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cornwell, the real name of the English author who I’ve known since 1996. Every year we come back here to enjoy a few hours as guests of the distinguished couple, who welcome our unlikely group with the warmth usually reserved for family. As I watch our son Sasha who, at the same pace as Naoki Higashida, jumps with joy in the garden of the home at the edge of the earth, I appear to see him, Fiedler and Liz emerge from their very different prisons and, albeit fleetingly, regain their freedom.

* Federico Varese is professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. Sasha Varese has autism and attends a special school near Oxford.