Some call it the United Nations in Trastevere. When Andrea Riccardi founded the Community of Sant'Egidio with a circle of high school friends in Rome in 1968, he did not have big plans. The group would pray together and aid the poor and in that way help improve the human condition at least a tiny bit. "The periphery of Rome was like a Third World city," Riccardi recalls.
Forty years later, Riccardi, 58, has made his presence felt a lot farther than in one small corner of a big city. The Community of Sant'Egidio is now a global family of more than 50,000 volunteers in 73 countries, dedicated to charity, evangelizing and peacemaking. Funded by contributions and subscriptions, the group has been called upon to function as arbiter and conciliator in a score of major peace negotiations in the Middle East, the Balkans, Latin America, Africa and Asia. "We're not dreamers," Riccardi says. "We need to convince the people that peace is the best situation for them and that war is madness."
Riccardi began demonstrating the power of that simple idea in the early 1980s, when Sant'Egidio was asked by various factions to help broker an end to the bloody religious strife in Lebanon. That work was followed in the early '90s by a greater–and more lasting–accomplishment, as the group helped cool tempers and negotiate deals in a civil war in Mozambique.
The secret of Riccardi's technique is to see peacemaking not as bargaining but as an act of conversion, transforming a person who was your enemy into a mere political opponent. That's hardly the making of an alliance, but it does get adversaries talking–and that can keep them from shooting. When the technique works, even the most barbarous of characters may show a flicker of decency. On March 28 the government of Uganda signed a Sant'Egidio-negotiated peace treaty in which the warlord Joseph Kony agreed to come out of the bush and be tried before a jury in a regional court. Why would the likes of Kony be swayed by the likes of Riccardi? Riccardi himself can only guess. "We are all volunteers," he ventures. "Our lack of vested interest gives us moral authority."