Antioch, the heart of Turkish Christianity, wounded by the earthquake
by Dario Salvi

The death toll in Turkey and Syria now stands at 11,000. Turkish President Erdogan visits some of the hardest-hit areas, as anger mounts among survivors over the slow pace of rescue operations. Antakya, the ancient Antioch, is one of the most isolated places, hard to reach and obstacles to bringing in aid. Entire buildings were flattened as was much of the historic heart of the city. For the vicar of Anatolia, it was a symbol of openness.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Maria Grazia Zambon is a fidei donum, sent to Turkey by the Diocese of Milan (Italy) 20 years ago. She is well acquainted with Antakya. Known as Antioch in antiquity, it is the heart of Christianity in the former Ottoman Empire.

“There are still (after)shocks,” she told AsiaNews, and “the situation is difficult and complicated.” It is hard to bring aid to the city because “the roads are impassable"; what little gets through “is carried by hand, including money. The banks have been destroyed and no one can take money out.”

Bringing supplies and comforts from the outside "is really complicated" because part of the city, especially the old quarter (pictured) “has been destroyed, entire buildings razed to the ground.”

Caritas Turkey “has loaded goods in some cars but fuel is in short supply, and it is hard to operate generators.”

After declaring a three-month state of emergency in 10 provinces, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began visiting some of the areas most affected by the earthquake.

Meanwhile, anger and discontent are mounting among survivors for the slow pace of rescue and relief operations. Some areas, including Antakya itself, are at pains to receive aid.

Thus far, the overall death toll for both Turkey and Syria has topped 11,000. According to some UN sources, it could reach as high as 20,000.

As aftershocks continue, even Istanbul is beginning to fear that it too could be hit by an earthquake from any other movement along the Anatolian fault lines.

Although communications are difficult and phone calls very brief, just a few seconds at a time, when possible, Maria Grazia Zambon, a consecrated member of the ordo virginum, has been able to get into contact with Antakya’s Catholic community,

The Sts Peter and Paul parish church in Antakya, one of the few buildings spared so far by the earthquake (because it is lower and stronger), is in taking displaced people. “There is no electricity, no internet in the city; phone services are poor,” said Fr Francis Dondu, the parish priest.

“Early reports suggest that the main quake razed the old quarter to the ground; many buildings have collapsed and many fires are raging.” The church "has opened its doors to Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims," he added. Now the goal is "to figure out how to proceed, because it is cold, we are in the middle of winter, and shelter is needed.”

“Antakya is one the most isolated centres in Turkey,” Zambon noted; “at present, it is hard to reach by land because the roads are damaged, if not wiped out, and many people are still missing, under the rubble. Even the airport is unusable.”

The synagogue that stood near the church also collapsed. Together, they created “an ecumenical and interreligious mosaic" that the quake directly hammered.

"The scrolls containing the holy scriptures have gone up in smoke, as did 2,500 years of history. The head of the Jewish community was moved to a hospital in another city, because those in Antakya are not operational, too damaged or destroyed by the earthquake.”

“It is particularly difficult to communicate" with Antakya, said Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, vicar of Anatolia, who is coordinating aid from Italy while waiting to return to Turkey. “It is hard to get news from one of the foremost Christian locations in the Middle East.’

“If Jerusalem is considered the Mother Church, Antioch can be seen as the mother of Christian dialogue,” the prelate explained. “It is from here that the proclamation of the Gospel started”.

The city is a point of reference, “not only for the Byzantine and Western Churches, but also for the Syriac Church. All three great branches of the Church started in Antioch, which is still a patriarchal see, even though their leaders live elsewhere."

In this corner of the world, “in the 1st and 2nd centuries, we witnessed the elaboration of Christian theology with Luke, Paul and Barnabas,” said the vicar of Anatolia. “Open to the nations, it is deemed a point of reference even in the Acts of the Apostles.”

"Today's Christian community is plural, but has been able to unify the date of Easter, a not insignificant fact. In Antioch several joint initiatives have been undertaken. The relationship with Turkish authorities is good, and represents a good point of reference.”

Conversely, “a quarter [of the population] are refugees" and their presence inevitably "creates many problems", but the city "has always found ways, despite everything, to be open, a crossroad.”

Ancient Antioch was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, a key stage on the Silk Road. Indeed,  “Due to its geographical, social and cultural significance, it witnessed events and facts that cannot even be imagined elsewhere,” Bishop Bizzeti explained.

“As some scholars put it, including Romano Penna, it is a city of firsts, because here the mission was first conceived, relief organised, and aid opened up,” inspiring the birth of today's Caritas.