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Urban squatters occupy Church-owned land in Rome

Pope Francis greets a family during a visit yesterday at the Rome parish of St. Magdalene of Canossa. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

A gardening initiative is taking root on Catholic Church-owned land with the tacit blessing of Pope Francis.

The urban garden, situated in the Tor Tre Teste area on the edge of Rome, is the brainchild of Omero Lauri, a longtime activist in the capital’s squatting scene.

For the past four years, Lauri and his friends have been working on the 37 acres of abandoned land, turning it into fertile plots that Lauri has opened up — for a €30 a year fee — to some 75 needy families to farm.

However, the land does not belong to Lauri, but to the Chapter of St Mary Major, the college of priests who serve the Vatican basilica of the same name and manage its assets.

A few months after occupying the land in 2013, Lauri and his friends met with Pope Francis when he celebrated Mass at a nearby parish, and discussed Rome’s chronic shortage of affordable housing and land for the poor.

Soon after, Pope Francis asked his chief alms-giver, Mgr Konrad Krajewski, to get in touch with Lauri and keep tabs on the garden project. Since then, Lauri has provided Krajewski with regular updates about the organic initiative, though he is still seeking the coveted documentation — a contract or a lease.

“I’m very happy that this agreement is working and that these families can use this land,” Krajewski said.

Local authorities, however, haven’t been so thrilled. Lauri reported that in recent months police have fined him 12,000 euros for the unauthorised kitchen he’s running out of an abandoned building on the land.

Many of the farmers are residents of nearby working class neighbourhoods who heard about the initiative by word of mouth.

Marco Mazza received his plot at the start of the year. “They say that people these days only meet on social networks,” he said. “This is a real, realistic social network.”

“And if the harvest comes, we won’t complain,” he added. “We’ll be happy.”