Rome (AsiaNews) "Lepers are not beggars asking for alms or just patients in need of medical care; they are almost like prophets who speak about our future which is death," says Father Carlo Torriani, a sociologist and a PIME missionary in India. "They speak to us about it in God's name because they remind us that leprosy was not their end so death won't be ours, but is instead a gate to the Kingdom of Heaven."
Tomorrow, January 30, is the 52nd World Leprosy Day and it will be celebrated under the auspices of the Italian Association of the friends of Raoul Follereau (AIFO).
Father Torriano is well placed to speak to us about what leprosy means. For 36 years he has lived in India and has committed his life to helping leprosy patients.
Alone, India accounts fro 70 per cent of all leprosy cases in the world, its rate of infection standing at 2.5 per 100,000.
This year is especially significant since the World Health Organisation declared 2005 the year in which the disease would be conquered. Once the rate of infection is1 in 100,000, it will disappear on its own.
According to Father Torriani, "things have greatly improved in India and it is not unrealistic to think that it can be completely eradicated". The key to victory over leprosy are "scientific research to develop a vaccine and effective health education".
"The problem," Father Torriani explains, "is less important today than it used to be thanks to the efforts of the missionaries who first dealt with it and of the government which now provides free treatment in public health facilities and no longer marginalises patients".
In India the prevalence rate was 25.9 per 10,000 in 1991 down from 57.6 ten years earlier.
For many years, Father Torriani was in charge of the Lok Seva Sangam (Association to serve the people), an organisation devoted to the prevention and cure of leprosy in Chembur Kurla, a Mumbai neighbourhood.
Currently, he runs a small ashram, a traditional Indian hermitage, in Taloja, 40 kilometres outside Mumbai, a Muslim village in a predominantly Hindu area. He lives there with about 30 elderly patients who were cured of leprosy but were left deformed as well as 10 children of leprosy patients.
From his experience he can compare how the two organisations work: one based on relatively rigid organisational principles; the other, the one he is running now, on a commitment that goes beyond the simple medical treatment of the disease.
"For the past 28 years, Lok Seva Sangam has been monitoring the disease for the Mumbai municipal authorities," Father Torriani said, "and for some years, we have been treating every skin condition so as to quickly diagnose the disease and prevent deformities."
"Now the work is less demanding because of medical progress and public education campaigns. The centre now has a medical and nursing staff of 36 people, but in the 80s we were more than 60."
Called 'Heaven's Gate', his ashram is proof that a Christian commitment to patients is total, involving as it does sharing their daily life as well as paying attention to their spiritual needs.
For Father Torriani, patients who are healed are almost a prophetic sign of God's existence, a "sign that leprosy was not their end so death won't be ours, but is instead a gate to the Kingdom of Heaven".
To heal the patients' spirit in a non Christian setting, Father Torriani has come up with an ecumenical chapel with the symbols of every religion.
"On Sundays," he explains, "when we pray with the Christians and celebrate mass, people of every creed come, from the patients' families to residents of neighbouring villages, because we are in a remote area and there is no other church or place of worship."
But the ashram's scope goes beyond that of serving its residents. "With the donations we receive, we try to help neighbouring communities. Currently, we are rebuilding a school in a Hindu village." (MA)
*World Leprosy Day is the only event AIFO is promoting. It was founded in 1954 by French journalist and writer Raoul Follereau as a way to give voice to those who, more than many others, were voiceless because of their illness and the lot of discrimination the latter brought.