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Birds fly over damaged homes in Syria's easter city of Raqqa, 13 March 2021 Birds fly over damaged homes in Syria's easter city of Raqqa, 13 March 2021  (AFP or licensors)

Cardinal Zenari: Syria needs help to keep hope from dying

Ten years after the crisis that engulfed the Arab Republic, the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria reiterates the need for aid to lift people out of poverty, where schools and hospitals are often lacking, as "the ground is trampled and the skies furrowed by the armed forces of five powers at odds with each other".

By Massimiliano Menichetti

The war in Syria has devoured lives and peace and risks erasing hope. This is the fear of the Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus, Cardinal Mario Zenari, who has been living in a country torn apart by war, violence and vested interests for ten years.

He recalls that things were not always so in the nation, but that today everything is missing and a "river" of targeted aid is needed.

Pope Francis, both on his return trip from Iraq and during his Sunday Angelus on 15 March, turned his thoughts once again to "beloved and tormented Syria".

Q: Your Eminence, the Pope has once again called for reconstruction, coexistence and peace for Syria.... 

Since the beginning of the conflict, Pope Francis’ often recurring phrase in his appeals has become famous: "beloved and tormented Syria". It is one of the countries closest to his heart. Even recently, during his Apostolic Visit to Iraq, the Holy Father mentioned Syria. During yesterday's Angelus, speaking of the sad anniversary marking ten years of war, he recalled once again the immense suffering of the population, and made an urgent appeal for international solidarity and to put an end to the use of weapons, to set about reconciliation, reconstruction and economic recovery, and thus revive the hope of so many people, sorely tried by growing poverty and an uncertain future.

Both Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis, have started numerous and varied initiatives in recent years, to bring an end to violence and to initiate the peace process. There have also been many initiatives regarding humanitarian aid. The Pope famously called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria on September 7, 2013, just a few months after his election as Pope. St. Peter's Square was packed with faithful, in a dramatic moment, perhaps one of the most crucial ones for Syria. He recalled it himself on the plane, a few days ago, during his return trip from his Apostolic Visit to Iraq.

Q: What is the situation in the country today, as it also faces the Covid-19 emergency?

It is no longer the Syria I knew when I arrived there twelve years ago as Apostolic Nuncio. Today, going out into the streets of Damascus, I see long queues of people in front of bakeries, patiently waiting for their turn to buy bread at prices subsidized by the State. Often it is the only food they can afford. There are scenes that have never been seen before, not even during the hardest years of war. And to think that Syria is part of the so-called "Fertile Crescent", Upper Mesopotamia, with plains as far as the eye can see, stretching for about 500km between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers: a carpet of gold during the month of May, when the crops are golden! You can also see long queues of cars in front of petrol stations, and it is difficult to find diesel fuel for heating in houses, although in the eastern part of the country, on the border with Iraq, there are oil wells that would be enough for almost a complete supply of fuel for domestic use.

Q: What are the effects now, ten years after the outbreak of the conflict?

The Syria of today has the face of a country where, compared to ten years ago, several categories of people are missing: about half a million people have died in the conflict; 5.5 million people are Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries; another 6 million wander, sometimes back and forth, from one village to another as internally displaced persons. There are also about one million missing migrants. Tens of thousands of missing persons in total. Young people - the future of the country - are missing. More than half of the country's Christians are missing. There are no fathers, and sometimes even no mothers, for many children. For many of them, there is no home. There is a lack of schools, hospitals and medical and nursing personnel, and all these, in the midst of a Covid-19 emergency. There is a lack of factories and other activities. Entire villages and neighbourhoods have disappeared, razed to the ground and depopulated. The famous archaeological heritage, which attracted visitors from all over the world, is now dilapidated. The social fabric, the mosaic of exemplary coexistence between ethnic and religious groups, has been seriously damaged. Nature also groans with the air, water and soil pollution due to the use, for ten years, of explosives and devices of various kinds. The ground is trampled and the skies ploughed by the armed forces of five powers in disagreement with each other, as the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Geir Pedersen often reminds us. In short, a truly bleak picture.

Q: After these long years of war, the economy is heavily damaged, basic services such as schools and hospitals are lacking, and poverty is another plague that crushes the people. Is Syria in danger of being completely abandoned? 

It is true that in several regions of Syria, for some time now, bombs no longer fall, but what could be called the "bomb" of poverty has broken out. According to the latest data from the United Nations, about 90% of the Syrian population currently lives below the poverty line. This is the worst figure in the world! The Syrian lira has lost much of its value and prices of basic consumer goods have skyrocketed. People call this phase of the conflict "economic war". In addition, factories are wanting, work is hard to find and salaries are very low, and there is still no sign of a substantial economic recovery. 

Q: For about two years, the bombs have stopped falling in most of the country, the United Nations continues its efforts to negotiate between factions and government has started work on a new Constitution, but this does not seem to be enough to restore hope and confidence. Why?

Unfortunately, there is a sense that the peace process, outlined in the road map of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015), is at a standstill. In his briefing to the same Security Council on 9 February, the UN Special Envoy drew attention to the need for "constructive international diplomacy on Syria," both for the continuation of constitutional reform and for the peace process in general. During some crucial moments, in these years of war, there have been bitter debates and divisions within the Security Council, and the use of the veto right has been resorted to about fifteen times, by some permanent members, when it came to the adoption of important resolutions. From this, it is easy to conclude that there will be no peace in Syria as long as these diatribes and divisions within the highest body in charge of world security and peace continue. However, beyond these disappointing and unsuccessful moments, it is also necessary to remember the unanimous agreement of the international community on at least two crucial occasions: the first, in September 2013, when, thanks to the agreement between the presidents of the Russian Federation and the United States, Putin and Obama, the serious and delicate problem of the dismantling of the Syrian chemical arsenal was resolved; another occasion was when the aforementioned Resolution 2254, which, as mentioned, establishes the road map for the peace process, was voted unanimously.

Q: There are children who have experienced only violence and deprivation. How will their wounds heal?

As with all wars, this long and cruel conflict has had devastating effects especially on the weakest sectors of the population, especially children, women and the elderly. Many children have died under the bombardments or in the crossfire, others have been pulled out wounded and mutilated from under the rubble, some have died in the sea crossing, several others have suffered psychological traumas difficult to heal, many have been left without one or both parents. Many have died of malnutrition, cold, dehydration, like the fifty or so babies who died in their mothers' arms while fleeing from Baghouz in the winter of a couple of years ago. A certain number of them, together with their mothers, are still waiting in various refugee camps for repatriation to their countries of origin, in very precarious conditions, especially in the sadly famous camp of Al-Hol (Hassaké). After the bloody battle of Aleppo in 2016 happened, several thousand children, without family, without name and surname were left wandering in the streets and ruins of the city. Thanks to the joint efforts of the Muslim and Christian religious authorities of Aleppo, efforts were made to register them at the registry office with a name and surname, and to set them on a path of social reintegration. As one out of three schools is out of use, about two million Syrian children are not in school. Some are victims of sexual exploitation and some are conscripted. Girls, especially, are exposed to early marriage. The fuse that sparked the conflict was unconsciously lit by a dozen children in Daraa, southern Syria, who were arrested and detained for several days because they had written slogans against President Assad on their school masonry. All this then inexorably fell back on their peers like a cruel boomerang. A real massacre of innocents.

Q: What role do young people have, those of now and of the future, in the reconstruction of the country?   

Young people are a country's best resources. They are the future of society and the Church. Unfortunately, Syria and the Church have lost much of this incomparable heritage. A large number of them, in fact, not seeing a secure future, have taken the path of exile. One could define this incalculable loss as another deadly "bomb" for Syria. 

Q: To relaunch Syria, it is estimated that about 400 billion dollars are needed. Do you think more effort is needed from the international community?

The United Nations, the various NGOs and Churches involved in the humanitarian field are trying to deal with the many emergencies, especially food and health. Unfortunately, reconstruction and economic start-up, for which several hundred billion dollars would be needed, have not yet begun. The sanctions, some in particular, have a negative effect on all this, in addition to the serious phenomenon of corruption and various other factors. For this work of reconstruction and economic recovery, there is a need for a powerful and urgent intervention of the international community. Peace will not come to Syria without reconstruction and economic start-up. "Development is the new name for peace," wrote Pope St. Paul VI in the 1967 Encyclical "Populorum Progressio." Pope Francis, in his Encyclical "Fratelli tutti," No. 126, quoting Pope St. John Paul II's "Centesimus Annus," speaks of the need to ensure the "fundamental right of peoples to subsistence and progress." If I may borrow and paraphrase the title of a novel that appeared a few years ago, "Peace like a river", there is a need for a "river" of aid aimed at the reconstruction of hospitals, schools, factories and various infrastructures.

Q: What is the role of the Church in this context? 

An enormous challenge facing the various religions present in Syria, particularly Christianity and Islam, is reconciliation and the mending of the social fabric damaged by these long years of war. Moreover, the Church is active on the ground with a vast network of humanitarian projects open to all, without ethnic-religious differences, thanks to aid from various charitable institutions from all over the world. We could say that it is the work of the "Good Samaritan".

Q: How are you living this period of Lent, and with what horizon?

We are trying to live this "Lent" together with the people. It has been going on without interruption for 10 years now. We are waiting to catch a glimpse of the end of the tunnel and a glimpse of Syria's recovery, a "resurrection" of this country.

Q: What is your wish, your appeal for this country?

A Syrian journalist, by the pseudonym of Waad Al-Kateab, wrote in "The New York Times" on 7 February, 2020 an article entitled: "We are left to face death alone". And Pope Francis, on 9 January, 2020, on the occasion of the exchange of New Year greetings with the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, said, "I refer to the blanket of silence that threatens to cover the war that has devastated Syria over the course of this decade." Syria, in these long years of war, has lost peace, has lost people, has lost young people, has lost Christians. Many people have lost and are losing hope as well. It could be compared to the unfortunate man in the parable of the "Good Samaritan": attacked by thieves, robbed and left half dead and humiliated on the side of the road. She is waiting to be raised socially and economically, and to see her dignity recognised. For this, special thanks go to all the "good Samaritans", some of whom have even lost their lives in showing her their generous solidarity: these are international humanitarian institutions, religious organisations, private individuals. Let us not let hope die!

15 March 2021, 14:14