On Wednesday, the archbishop of Manila and president of Caritas Internationalis visited eastern Ghouta, not far from Damascus. For years it was a symbol of Jihadi violence. Caritas and its volunteers are committed to helping the suffering population. The cardinal saw people living amid the rubbles and destruction.
Damascus (AsiaNews) – Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila and president of Caritas Internationalis, recently visited Douma, in eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, a place that has come to symbolise Syria’s civil war.
When he entered the town and saw “the ash, the dust, the destruction before me, I was very moved. Seeing people still living amid the rubbles and devastation was a moment of great sorrow," said the head of communications for Caritas Syria as she remembered the prelate’s words.
The visit took place two days ago, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent during, during the annual meeting of the Council of Heads of Catholic Churches in Syria. On this occasion, the Filipino cardinal was accompanied by the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria Card Mario Zenari, the Greek-Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi and some local Catholic bishops.
At the end of the visit, the Archbishop of Manila remembered something. “By a strange coincidence,” the cardinal said, “the visit fell on the very day [of Ash Wednesday] and I saw dust and destruction with my own eyes. We, as Christians, live and celebrate 'ash' once a year, but there are people who live in dust every day."
The first impression for the prelate is that "People are in need of everything: food, medicine, humanitarian aid. This is why we should not forget Syria. Its needs and suffering are still great."
Still, it is good to see how Caritas staff, "also touched by the war since they are part of Syrian society, work with a smile on their faces and with generosity helping the poor. They themselves are in need, yet work for others."
Eastern Ghouta has been a major battleground between Jihadi rebel groups and Syrian troops. From here many attacks were launched, hitting Christian neighborhoods, with score of victims and lots of injuries.
The faces of the children in Ghouta showed the signs of "unspeakable suffering". The general reaction, as Syro-Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan noted, is one of "deep sadness and repulsion" in seeing the "horrible destruction of that region, held hostage for such a long time by radical Muslims."
The visit had a profound impact on Card Tagle, who expressed great sorrow at a kind of suffering that is "comparable only to that caused by a typhoon or an earthquake".
In addition to food, medicine and work, education is an issue. At least 50 schools existed in the area before the war; now the authorities have been able to re-open less than half, about 20, and the situation is still dangerous.
The primary school Card Tagle visited was packed with 1,800 pupils even though its capacity is far lower. It will take a long time before it is back to normal and children allowed to confront and overcome the traumas of war that still haunt them.
Before the visit, Card Tagle thought of Syria as the cradle of Christianity, a land where faith in Jesus is rooted in thousands of years, through the testimony of St Paul the Apostle.
The prelate cited the Grand Umayyad Mosque, which contains the tomb of Saint John the Baptist, a place where Christians and Muslims prayed together in the past.
The cardinal hopes that one day it will become again a place of peace and coexistence between religions "overcoming death, war and devastation".
(Sandra Awad, head of Communication at Caritas Syria contributed to the article)