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Europe

Spanish priest sees hope in the deepest squalor

Canada Real, located just outside the Spanish capital, is one of the most infamous slums in Europe. But amid the drug-infested squalor, one priest still hopes for rehabilitation.

At the wheel of his jeep, a wiry, black-bearded priest called Agustin Rodriguez drives through his parish. On the car floor there is a coil of rope and a spring hook. The padre goes pot-holing in his spare time. At work, too, he descends into dark places.

"There is drug dealing in most of the houses here," he says. "You better put your microphone down."

Father Agustin's parish is Canada Real Galiana, Madrid's out-of-town hard drug market. Small cars with people in the back buzz to and fro. 'Kundas' they're called. Unofficial taxis that ferry junkies here from a square in the center of Madrid.

Men have installed tables and chairs in front of some of the houses and are waiting like shopkeepers behind the counter. One of them catches my eye. Big belly, big moustache, white vest, trilby.

Outside the law

Eight years ago the police clamped down on drug dealing inside Madrid, and the dealers moved here. They chose Canada Real Galiana because it was already outside the law. It is an illegal settlement that has existed for decades. The authorities don't destroy it because they wouldn't know what to do with the people they'd make homeless if they did.

Spanischer Priester aus Canada Real

Father Agustin (left) refuses to relinquish hope

They have bulldozed some of the houses here though. We drive into an open zone of litter and rubble that looks like it has been bombed from the air. In the middle: the Catholic church where father Agustin is priest. A junkie has built a shack on one side, using the church to lean on. We drive up and park in front.

A few paces away are parked cars where dealers invite their customers to shoot up. Others shoot up in the open. At the entrance to the church, a young man with a cross around his neck serves an orange juice to a tall, gangly junky with a bare chest and a beach towel worn as a cape. The man with the cross is called Pep Montez. Brother Pep. He is a monk.

"What we have here is the lowest point of human degradation," says Montez. "Addicts come here to buy their drugs, but many also find themselves entangled with the dealers and end up working for them. Really as slaves to the drug-selling families. They work as look-outs, as prospectors for new clients, as security guards…"

Brother Pep helped two addicts escape the previous month. As soon as they told him they wanted to change their lives, Pep grabbed his car and drove them out of there. He now visits them twice a week in their junkie rehabilitation homes far from Canada Real.

A way out

While we are talking, the lanky addict with the beach towel cape nips into the church. Either, Agustin surmises, to use the toilet or to take a shower. Soon, he says, they'll be providing one proper meal a day.

"What we want to say to these people is 'Stand up! You are about to be set free!' That is what we want to achieve. But that's not the way to go about it," Rodriguez says. "That process begins by sitting down next to someone and asking: 'How are you?' It is as easy as that."

I ask him if the drug addicts ever come to the church for anything other than material help. "No," he says. "Never. They all come for material reasons. Because they are thirsty, because they are hungry. But coming here opens other doors that can lead them to talk about other things."

So the following Sunday was a special day.

The congregation was about fifteen people. The altar - a formica table. The crucifix - made of bricks cemented to the wall. "So it doesn't get stolen," Father Agustin had told me with a smile.

In the middle of his sermon a man walked into the church. He was wearing a sleeveless shirt so you could see the needle marks on his arms.

"We're at mass. Come later!" shouted Agustin. But the junkie wanted to stay.

When he'd finished his sermon Father Agustin asked him what his name was. Emilio. Did he want to say something? He did.

"I want to apologize," he said. "I suppose you must be shocked. I have my problems, my addictions. I don't consider myself a bad person but I've lost... everything."

Spanien Madrid - Elendsviertel Canada Real

Canada Real, dubbed Europe's 'slum of shame,' is a tangled mess of wire, refuse and concrete

"You were saying about the bread," he continued. "I suppose it's not bread for the stomach. It's also bread for this." He pointed to his heart. The tears were streaming down his face.

"In these times, everyone is thinking about money, about the crisis. This is important, but we should all enter a peaceful place, at least for a moment. That's why I came here. And again, please forgive me. I'm actually the most normal person in the world. Thank you for letting me in," he said. "I was worried you wouldn't."

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