After dueling rallies in support of Palestine and Israel earlier this month in Florence, which each brought out hundreds of supporters, a recent gathering for peace organized by leaders of multiple faiths has dwarfed both of their turnouts. Last night, an estimated ten thousand Florentines marched in a candlelight procession for peace in the middle east, starting from the Ponte delle Grazie bridge at 6:30 pm and ending in front of San Miniato al Monte abbey. The event was organized by padre Bernardo, abbot of San Miniato, along with Florence’s Imam Izzedin Elzir, Rabbi Gadi Piperno, and mayor Dario Nardella.
The massive crowd marched with lit candles along the Arno River before turning towards the steep hill leading to the abbey. In announcing the event, padre Bernardo discouraged treating it like a rally: “we will have no words to pronounce, slogans to shout, banners to display […] only our faces, our eyes, our silence […] to speak for our message of hope and peace.” The request was mostly followed, with the apparently single exception of one attendee who carried a Palestinian flag emblazoned with “Palestina Libera.” The flag remained throughout the event, though others in the procession tried to convince him to put it away at several points. Many were drawn to Padre Bernardo’s broad call for peace separate from one’s perspective on the conflict overall. “We’re not concerned with ‘whose side.’ It’s a war. We are here for humanity,” said Marisa, who attended with her mother and 3 children.
Once the crowd had gathered at the steps of the church, with thousands spilling out of the main courtyard, padre Bernardo spoke – flanked by Imam Elzir, Rabbi Piperno, and mayor Nardella – declaring that Florence “demands first and foremost the freeing of hostages.” In its raid on October 7th, Hamas killed over a thousand people and took around two hundred hostages, two of whom were released today, for a total of four thus far. He encouraged the crowd to remain “outraged at the disgrace of war [and] plans for genocide,” and expressed his gratitude to Piperno and Elzir, calling their presence “a gift of peace, of prophecy, courage, and freedom.”
The absence of any particular attendee was also addressed in the abbot’s speech: “I ask honestly to journalists, don’t ask us who’s here, who’s missing, why this, why not that – tonight all of Florence is here, and our hearts stand for those missing as well.”
Padre Bernardo called for understanding and inclusion, but not in order to “dull the truth” or “forget about justice.” Anna Meli, president of COSPE, a humanitarian NGO with local partners in Gaza, agreed with this sentiment. “It was right for us to send a message, from the people of the city, that it’s time to put down the guns, reopen a dialogue and find a solution that involves justice and peace.” All her contacts in Gaza, who worked on disabilities and women’s rights, have been displaced from the Israeli bombing; some have already died.
Meli has advocated for the end of Gaza’s 50-year occupation, and she has witnessed its deterioration over time first-hand. “It was really a harrowing situation there. The level of overpopulation, the enclosure on that strip… It was really intolerable.” Indeed, Gaza is years past a grim deadline set by the UN, who declared that the strip of coastline would be “unlivable” beyond 2020. Over 400 Gazans were killed in bombings in just the past 24 hours.