The vicar of Anatolia and president of Caritas Turkey announces the mobilisation of Christian organisations to bring aid to the stricken population. An event that "took them by surprise". Head of Caritas Anatolia speaks of "serious and extensive damage". The Hatay airport runway destroyed, hospitals also hit. Bishop Audo's testimony in Aleppo: "Great fear" for "violent tremors".
Milan (AsiaNews) - "A total disaster". This is the dramatic and concise description of the extent of the devastation wrought by the overnight earthquake that struck Turkey causing hundreds of deaths also in neighbouring Syria, shared by the vicar of Anatolia Mgr Paolo Bizzeti with AsiaNews.
The prelate is in Italy this week for a series of meetings, but he has been in contact - as much as possible given the broken communictaion lines - with the faithful and collaborators in the area.
"The cathedral of the vicariate in Iskenderun [the Church of the Annunciation, a 19th century building] has collapsed," he adds, "all the buildings are uninhabitable" but so far "there are no victims" reported among the local Christian community.
The prelate is also president of Caritas Turkey and is already announcing 'the opening of a subscription' to help the local population. "The earthquake struck in the middle of the night, it was just after 4 a.m." and this took most of the people who were sleeping in their homes by "surprise". "A disastrous event," he adds, and even now "the fear is great" for further, possible strong aftershocks that often follow the main quake.
John Farhad Sadredin, head of Caritas Anatolia, is also in Italy for an event scheduled for tonight in Veneto, which has already been cancelled. He is looking for a ticket to leave in the next few hours.
"I tried to contact several people in the area," he tells AsiaNews, "but until recently entire areas were isolated and it was not possible to communicate by phone. "We are hosting about seventy people left homeless," Farhad continues, "in a church and in the refectory" of the community, in the town that was once known as Alexandretta, "the damage is serious and extensive.
"The main tremor occurred shortly after 4am, throughout the region the toll is very heavy, several buildings have collapsed and in one of them a member of our community in Antioch is also missing".
"There are at least 200 collapsed buildings, they are trying to recover the victims. The wall and roof of the Syriac church also came down; the Orthodox church also collapsed and there are policemen under the rubble. The search is underway," he concludes, "while we are looking for a ticket to get back, but the runway of Hatay airport, which serves the cities of Antakya [ancient Antioch] and Iskenderun, has been destroyed. Damage was also recorded in the hospitals of the two cities and at the police headquarters."
Meanwhile, the death toll from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake (some sources speak of 7.9 on the Richter scale) that struck Turkey and Syria, but was felt separately in many other countries, including Lebanon, Israel, and Greece by millions of people, continues to worsen.
In Turkey, the death toll stands at 284, but the figure continues to rise as the minutes pass, plus over 2,300 injured, but again this is only a partial estimate. According to some experts, it could be the worst in the country's recent history, with at least 40 aftershocks already recorded.
In a note, Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdogan announced the dispatch of search and rescue teams "to the most affected regions. We hope to survive this disaster," he added, "as quickly as possible and with as little damage as possible, and we continue to work."
In Gaziantep, near the epicentre, the historic castle, one of the city's most famous symbols, has been destroyed and a state of emergency is in force throughout the country. In neighbouring Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad chaired an emergency meeting, the number of victims is already reported to be 427 (plus another 120 in rebel-held areas) and the number of injured has exceeded 600. The governorates of Aleppo, Homs, Latakia and Hama were affected.
"We felt the earthquake very distinctly," Mgr Antoine Audo, Chaldean bishop of Aleppo and former president of Caritas Syria, tells AsiaNews.
"We were very scared, there were three very violent tremors in less than two minutes. There are many deaths in Syria as well, official figures are constantly being updated. There is damage in Aleppo, Tartus, Idlib and in many other cities there are collapsed buildings. Here in the bishopric, stones have fallen from the nearby mosque, part of the minaret has collapsed. All over the city there is damage, first the war that has done so much damage and now the earthquake... now we are assessing the initial estimates, then with the various Christian organisations we will move to bring aid to the affected populations".