By Devin Watkins
Syria marks a grim anniversary on Monday: It’s been 10 years since the so-called ‘day of rage’, when discontent with the government of Bashar al-Assad boiled over into massive street protests.
A violent crackdown on demonstrators led to an armed insurrection which spiraled into a civil war.
Pope Francis marked this 10th anniversary of bloodshed a day earlier with a renewed appeal for peace in “beloved and martyred Syria”. Yet, his concern and care go beyond mere words and appeals.
ROACO, the “Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches”, has accompanied the Syrian people in the Pope’s name ever since conflict broke out.
The humanitarian arm of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Oriental Churches unites a host of aid agencies to assist suffering populations in rebuilding churches, homes, schools, and healthcare facilities.
Msgr. Kuriacose Cherupuzhathottathil, the Secretary of ROACO, spoke to Vatican Radio’s Antonella Palermo about the many ways the Church is helping Syrians deal with the ongoing crisis.
“The agencies and the Oriental Congregation, together with the local Churches, try to stay close to the people in need and help them,” said Msgr. Kuriacose. “We try to provide them with basic necessities, like food and shelter.”
Sign of Pope’s love
The aid and funding delivered by ROACO are not only a sign of the Church’s solidarity. They are also an expression of the Pope’s care, according to the Secretary.
“All projects that are financed in Syria demonstrate the love of the Holy Father to this nation,” he said. “Because we, as the Congregation and agencies of ROACO, work in the name of the Holy Father. Actually, every gesture of aid to Syria demonstrates his love and his attention to this nation, which requires much more than what we do today.”
Binding up Syria’s wounds
Those projects, said Msgr. Kuriacose, include the reconstruction of three Catholic hospitals in Syria. These healthcare facilities offer Syrians an important lifeline, and many services are offered free-of-charge for those in need.
ROACO also helps to finance the construction of churches, monasteries, religious houses, social and humanitarian projects, and catechetical centers.
“Syria is a wounded and bleeding nation,” according to Msgr. Kuriacose, “and we are trying our best, as ROACO, to heal the wounds by providing the help the people need.”
Preparing terrain for refugees’ return
However, added the Secretary, some of ROACO’s most important aid goes toward helping Syrians stay in their nation, as well as assisting those who wish to return home.
Over 5 million of them have fled the destruction, while another 6 million are internally displaced.
The United Nations says some 13.4 million Syrians within the country require some form of humanitarian assistance.
“For these people to come home, or back to where they lived before, they need security,” said Msgr. Kuriacose. “So, what we are trying to do is to accompany them where they are now, and we try to accompany them in their suffering, and also provide them hope.”
He said those seeds of hope come in the form of preparing the terrain for their return, like rebuilding homes, schools, and clinics.
Msgr. Kuriacose added that ROACO continues is work, “because the necessities are so alarming.”
“In order to construct a peaceful society, we have to do a lot more,” he said.
Children’s hope for a better future
Msgr. Kuriacose concluded the interview recalling a personal experience which touched him deeply.
While visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon in 2018, he said his delegation visited a ROACO-funded school for around 600 children.
He said that despite their cramped conditions and difficult daily lives, he could “see in the eyes of those children the light and hope for a better future.”
“I am sure,” he concluded, “that those children would consider—even though the experience they are living is hard—that these difficult times are a stepping stone for their future, which I hope they will live in Syria and not in a refugee camp in any other country, as they help in the reconstruction of Syria.”