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Sant'Egidio founder wins major European prize

Andrea Riccardi, a Catholic historian who founded the Sant'Egidio Community in Rome, has been awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize at a ceremony in Germany.

Riccardi, 58, was honoured in the city of Aachen for his exemplary demonstration of Europe's humanistic convictions and spirit of solidarity, as well as his promotion of world peace.

Riccardi founded the Sant'Egidio lay community in Rome with friends 40 years ago. The organization now has more than 50,000 volunteers in 70 countries, who work with the poor as well as with drug addicts, Aids sufferers and social outcasts.

Aachen Mayor Juergen Lindner praised Riccardi as an "ambassador and representative of European values."

In his acceptance speech, Riccardi expressed his support for a strong and united Europe. The continent, he warned, was in danger of exiting the history books and reverting to "national and regional egotism."

"The world needs Europe, its humanity, its rationality, its capacity to mediate, its economic might, its culture," he said.

Despite its world wars and the Shoa, Riccardi said, Europe could become a "paradigm of peace."

"Our culture of living together is our answer to terrorism," he said to frequent applause during his address.

The Charlemagne Prize has been awarded every year since 1950 for services to European unity and Christian values. Last year, the award went to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Other winners include former US president Bill Clinton, former French president Francois Mitterrand, former Czech president and dissident Vaclav Havel, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Pope John Paul II.

The prize is presented every year in Aachen Cathedral, the burial place of Charlemagne (768-814 A.D.) and the capital of his medieval European empire. He is considered one of the most renowned and powerful emperors in the history of the Holy Roman Empire.