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Rome • Dozens of families have started tilling the soil and planting their first crops as a squatters' gardening initiative takes root on Catholic Church-owned land with the tacit blessing of Pope Francis.

The not-entirely-legal urban garden that has sprung up on the eastern periphery of Rome is the brainchild of Omero Lauri, a longtime activist in the capital's squatting scene. In 2014, he occupied the St. Mary Major Basilica for three weeks with 50 families who had been evicted from an abandoned building they had taken over.

For the past four years, Lauri and his friends have been working the 15 hectares (37 acres) of abandoned land they occupied at Tor Tre Teste. They cleared it of garbage and rocks, installed a well-fed irrigation system and turned the land into fertile plots that Lauri has been handing over for free — with a nominal 30 euro a year inscription fee — to needy families to farm.

"We believe that all people have the right to a piece of land for free," Lauri told the newest families to the project Sunday after assigning them their plots by lottery.

The only hitch is that the land isn't Lauri's to give. It belongs to the Chapter of St. Mary Major, the college of priests who serve the Vatican basilica of the same name (and the same which Lauri occupied) and manage its assets.

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

Francis, who celebrates the fourth anniversary of his pontificate Monday, has made the poor, the unemployed and the "peripheries" a major focus of his ministry, taking particular care of Rome's homeless and down and out.

Three weeks after meeting with the squatters, Francis recalled in his weekly Sunday prayer that Jesus wasn't born in a house but a barnyard stall. "Today I think ... about all those families without homes, either because they never had one or because they lost it for whatever reason," he said Dec. 22, 2013.

Soon thereafter he asked his chief alms-giver, Monsignor 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 — that would regularize what is essentially an illegal occupation and use of private land.

Krajewski declined to be interviewed. But he indicated he was on board with the initiative, which is currently letting some 75 families farm the land and reap the vegetable bounty for their own tables. "I'm very happy that this agreement is working and that these families can use this land," he said.

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

Photos of the pope's Dec. 1, 2013 meeting with Lauri adorn the wall of the makeshift mess hall run by Lauri's companion that feeds farmers and visitors alike. The unofficial trattoria "Zitto e Magna" — "Shut up and Eat" in Roman dialect — features a 15-euro lunch of antipasto, pasta, meat plus wine.

On Sunday, as roosters roamed, goats grazed and bunnies bounded about the land, the newest families to the farm set to work delineating the 10-square-meter plots that had been assigned to them and getting to know their neighbors.

Many of the farmers are residents of nearby working class neighborhoods who heard about the initiative by word of mouth and jumped at the chance to have their own garden in the otherwise cement jungle of Rome's periphery.

"Since I was a child I've remembered my grandparent's vineyard, and this always stayed in my heart," said first-time farmer Rossella Paolini, who put in for a plot after losing her job. "Living in the city, you lose this."

As Paolini and her extended family planted their symbolic first lemon tree, she thought about the savings the free vegetables might bring her family, as well as the fresh air it would give her two daughters.

"On weekends we'd be stuck in a mall or out window-shopping but here, you can take the kids and they're thrilled," she said as the girls romped through the dirt.

The rules of the garden are simple: No pesticides or herbicides, and Lauri makes spot checks of produce to make sure no one cheats. Violators of the organic-only ethos get kicked out. No more than four trees are allowed per plot to prevent excessive shade on neighboring gardens. Farmers share expenses, such as fencing and water. Eggs from the communal hens are there for the taking.

The work is starting to bear fruit, literally.

Marco Mazza received his plot at the start of the year. A small rosemary bush was blooming in one corner on Sunday as he and his partners turned the soil over before planting a first round of carrots and potatoes, to be followed by tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant later this spring. As he looked around at his fellow urban gardeners, Mazza marveled at the social revolution that was unfolding.

"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."

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