03/15/2023, 12.20
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Bishop Bizzeti: Antioch, the earthquake marked 'the end of an era'

by Dario Salvi

The Vicar of Anatolia recounts a situation "still in full emergency" and with a strong psychological impact. The earth continues to tremble and the toll - between Syria and Turkey - has exceeded 55,000 dead. The work of Caritas in cooperation with the local authorities. The earthquake is an opportunity to rethink, and rebuild, churches according to "Turkish" architecture.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Turkey, hit by the devastating earthquake on 6 February, is still experiencing "a phase of full emergency" with some differences, because while in Iskenderun people are trying to understand how to restore basic services, elsewhere like Antioch "the situation is truly tragic," reports Monsignor Paolo Bizzeti, vicar of Anatolia.

He was speaking to AsiaNews,from Iskenderun where he returned this week  to coordinate the relief operation for the displaced, after having shuttled back and forth to Italy several times in recent weeks to collect funds and aid.

The vicariate, he explains, refers to three bases in Iskenderun itself, in Mersin and in Antioch, in "full cooperation with the local authorities" and through "selfless and efficient" work. But in order to make the dispatch network more effective, it is 'important that Hatay airport is back in operation'. 

The updated casualty figure, released yesterday by Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, is 48,448 dead. In Syria, according to data released by some NGOs present in the area, the estimate is 7,259 dead for a total death toll in the two countries of 55,707.

Moreover the earth continues to tremble: yesterday, in fact, there was a new, intense tremor of magnitude 4.6 with an epicentre in Kahramanmaras, and a depth of 10 kilometres underground, and "this is frightening and has a strong psychological impact," admits Monsignor Bizzeti.

Speaking about the situation on the ground at the end of a five-day visit, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi reports a picture of "shocking devastation and apocalyptic destruction". At the same time, Grandi launches an appeal for more 'resources' and a 'more important humanitarian response, so that people can live again'. 

For the vicar of Anatolia, the heart of the tragedy remains Antioch where, he says, "they have calculated that there are 1.6 million tons of rubble to be removed" for a city "razed to the ground. Even the buildings that remain standing are actually not habitable" and it will take "a huge effort to clear it" and then launch "a reconstruction plan".

"We are aware," he continues, "that an era is over: all of ancient Antioch, with the old Syrian and Aleppo style houses, are gone and cannot be rebuilt. The market is destroyed, even from a tourist point of view the most interesting places are gone... millennia of history razed to the ground!'

The most 'charming' part of the city is 'obliterated and cannot be rebuilt', almost the entire population 'has fled, others are living under tents or have found refuge in the mountains'. "Right now," he continues, "they need everything and it is not easy to even imagine the next few months, with the heat, how to manage the situation. Electricity, sewage, water, communications: everything has to be rebuilt, even the museum, once the main attraction, it is not known if and when it will reopen while work is going on to try to cage the world-famous statues from Hittite times in order to preserve them. A tragic situation in the making."

It is raining in Iskenderun and the situation is still precarious, as the prelate explains. "Banks are closed, various services are missing and it is not easy to try to return to a sustainable life. People,' he adds, 'are tried and are afraid to sleep in their homes, even if they are intact and usable. We are still in the middle of the earthquake, even though there is some positive news: in April, containers should arrive to open banks and post offices, to return to providing essential services and break the isolation, which is even greater in the surrounding villages and towns".

In these weeks, the work of Caritas Turkey, of which Monsignor Bizzeti is president, is concentrated on the outskirts of Antioch "to guarantee food supplies to a village of farmers and shepherds. Hot meals are needed, there are 1,200 people to whom we will give the necessary to live for a month, then we will see how the situation evolves. We are,' he explains, 'also on the eve of the beginning of Ramadan [the Islamic holy month of fasting and prayer, ed] and we want to help them at this special time too'. 

Finally, a reflection from a reconstruction perspective: 'The question of how to rebuild the church of Iskenderun, which we certainly cannot rebuild as it was, will soon arise. This,' he concludes, 'can be an opportunity to rethink the architecture of the cathedral, so that it is in harmony with Turkish taste, leaving aside other models but basing it on churches that fit in with Turkish culture and architecture, which is valuable'.


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