Vicar of Anatolia: Easter among Antioch earthquake victims a 'sign of hope'

Msgr. Bizzeti celebrated Sunday Mass with Fr. Antuan Ilgıt and some 80 faithful in the grotto of St. Peter's Church. Local Christians, volunteers and dignitaries including the Korean ambassador present. A moment of "comfort" for the earthquake-affected community. Like the women in the Gospel passage, one must not lose "courage."

Hatay (AsiaNews) - A "beautiful" celebration that united "the remaining Christians, the volunteers who came to help in the earthquake emergency and some foreigners" including "the Korean ambassador to Turkey. It was a very emotional moment,"  says Msgr. Paolo Bizzeti, vicar of Anatolia of the Easter Sunday Mass.

He shares with AsiaNews that the mass was celebrated in the grotto of St. Peter's Church in Antioch, the heart of the devastation caused by the Feb. 6 earthquake. A city that, still more than two months later, bears imprinted in every street, on every corner, in every square the signs of destruction.

"We are very grateful and thankful," the prelate continued, "to the Turkish authorities, who allowed us to celebrate. This moment represents a sign of hope, also and especially for the local community." 

Christians in Hatay province have long hoped in the run-up to Easter to be able to celebrate the feast despite many difficulties, not the least of which is obtaining permits in a context that is still one of deep devastation and rubble everywhere. The grotto in which the place of worship is located is on Mount Silpio, which dominates the city, and it is precisely "from the terrace" of the church, Msgr. Bizzeti recounts, that it is possible to observe "the ruins" a consequence of the earthquake.

"We were able to celebrate," he continues, "according to the passage from Matthew's Gospel (Mt. 28:2) on Easter Sunday, in which the women experience the earthquake," and above it is "the Angel of the Lord: we, too, had this experience" that "encapsulates and enhances" the Gospel metaphor.  

A local broadcaster filmed the service, which was attended by about 80 people, allowing it to be more widely broadcast and shared. The police and those in charge of the structure that "today is a museum," the vicar pointed out, "were very cooperative," allowing the community (1,200 families before the earthquake, about 6,000 people) to "experience a moment of peace and fraternity."

"There was a positive atmosphere, for the locals it was a moment of great comfort," stresses the prelate, who arrived together with some faithful by bus from Iskenderun.

"The Christians," he continued, "welcomed us warmly. After all, Antioch itself has suffered other earthquakes throughout its history, it is not the first time, and this is also a sign of continuity" and of a path that does not stop and starts again.

Fr. Antuan Ilgıt, Jesuit and bishop chancellor of the apostolic vicariate of Anatolia, concelebrated the mass and delivered the homily, recalling that the challenge is to keep hope alive by looking on Easter Day to the risen Christ. Like the women who "do not lose courage" and "do not give up in the face of the despair of death," the priest stressed, recalling the Gospel passage, so we "have much to learn" from them in terms of "sensitivity, faith and determination."

The stones of prejudice, condemnation, jealousy, slander and hostility "shatter in our communities," observed the priest, who urged people to go and see "that place of death" that is now part of earthquake-stricken Turkey "to seek Jesus. We have to begin anew our search for the Lord," Fr. Antuan concludes, "from that tomb and with a humble heart, not with pride and arrogance."

Meanwhile, the situation in Antioch remains an emergency, with "hundreds of trucks carrying rubble, creating terrible clouds of dust," recounts Msgr. Bizzeti, who speaks of a city that is still "unlivable: slums and tent cities are multiplying. Even in the hills to the west, which I visited in person, there are many damaged houses, unimaginable devastation. The damage is also substantial in the countryside, where the collapses were favored by the precariousness of the buildings."

In terms of aid, the prelate continues, "we still have supplies and basic necessities, the real problem is housing: the government has imposed a blockade on construction for at least a year in Antioch, where there will be only tents. Hopefully," he hopes, "they will not take too long in drafting the urban plan. As the months go by, structural problems emerge and it becomes essential to "rethink" the city.

"I hope," concludes the vicar of Anatolia, "that what happened will be an opportunity to carry out an archaeological survey among the collapsed houses, where ancient ruins and interesting finds could emerge in order to relaunch, in the future, tourism in the region."