02/10/2023, 20.56
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Card Zenari: the earthquake is testing people’s humanity, will hopefully help overcome Syria’s conflict

by Dario Salvi

The US is putting on hold some sanctions. The Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has announced a unilateral ceasefire to facilitate relief efforts. Nuncio to Syria stresses that everyone’s efforts are needed, starting with the international community that must “overcome ideological divisions”. In Aleppo a general feeling of "precariousness" prevails. The Open Hospitals programme is open to everyone “without discrimination”.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Card Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, spoke to AsiaNews about the situation in Syria following Monday’s earthquake. For him, the response to the tragedy of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria will “test everyone’s humanity”; hopefully, “weapons will fall silent and divisions will be overcome.”

Between Tuesday and Thursday, the prelate was in Aleppo, Syria’s second most important city, and the most affected by the earthquake.

Speaking by phone, he said that he plans to travel shortly to Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, another area hit by the quake along with the north-western province of Idlib, which is held by rebel and jihadi groups.

“The international community must overcome ideological divisions,” Card Zenari said, and lift “sanctions, in particular on gas and oil”, which are still subject to an embargo.

The many divisions of the past are still open wounds, starting with the divide between Syria and Turkey, the countries most affected by the earthquake that has killed so far more than 21,000 people. The death toll is expected to rise, and is already far worse than experts from the United Nations and the World Health Organisation initially estimated.

Despite the huge tragedy, some stories are a source of hope. This morning, 102 hours after the first tremor, six people were brought out alive from a collapsed building in Antakya, while a woman was rescued yesterday in Gazantyep after 83 hours under the rubble.

Meanwhile, in a region marked by wars and divisions, the first glimmers of optimism can be seen; the United States has decided to authorise some earthquake-related activities that come under the sanctions regime.

In Turkey, the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for years, has announced a unilateral ceasefire.

For Card Zenari, all parties should make the necessary humanitarian effort, both in Syria and in Turkey. "The two countries have a past of divisions that they must overcome.” Indeed, “this is a test to get some changes”, to put a full stop “to 12 years of war” and “start the work of reconstruction.”

This will also provide an opportunity to “show good will, one’s availability. In addition to the earthquake, we hope to see the other side of the coin.”

“At first, when faced with such tragedies we remain hopeless," but now it is time to "roll up our sleeves, as individuals and as institutions. I repeat, this disaster will test our humanity,” starting with Syria; it is essential to reach "a countrywide ceasefire and let all humanitarian aid to move freely.”

During his recent trip to Aleppo, Card Zenari saw “devastation and ruins” from 12 years of war, neighbourhoods razed to the ground, a widespread sense of “precariousness”.

“Of course, buildings are in ruin, minarets have crumbled, churches are damaged, but what is not visible is even more serious. One building out of three is unsafe. People cannot go back in and choose to stay outdoors” despite the cold. “Even if conditions are very precarious, they prefer to stay at the local parish or other Church organisations rather than go back.”

“Some families with seniors and children are without a mattress, and forced to sleep on chairs feeling safer. The real emergency is how to give these people a roof over their head. The international community will have to provide aid beyond the immediate emergency.”

War, COVID-19, sanctions, poverty, cholera and now the earthquake have brought Aleppo to its knees. The city was once a metropolis, a major business centre, now it is hurting.

The cardinal remembers that when it was the scene of a “great battle, more than 200,000 took to the streets, [it was ] a huge exodus, and now it is the same. We must bear in mind that Syria is the country in the world with the most displaced people, almost 13 million, inside and outside. Now the earthquake has added more victims.”

With respect to relief, he notes that “things are more difficult in Syria than in any European country hit by an earthquake. In addition to destroyed structures, petrol, electricity, diesel are all in short supply. I had to travel from Damascus to Aleppo with an extra tank because it is impossible to find” elsewhere.

“We are grateful to the government for fuel supplies that power our facilities because it would be unimaginable to accommodate over a thousand people without power. Food and gas are also needed to cook. The war is a huge burden.”

With such needs, the Church has opened its doors to the displaced, and is providing medical care to anyone in need at one of three of its Open Hospitals active in the country for years, two in the capital, one in Aleppo.

“An agreement was reached with the AVSI foundation so that everyone will be treated free of charge,” Card Zenari explained. “Hitherto, the principle was that only the poor didn’t have to pay for the care. Now the tragedy has united us and care must be provided without discrimination.”

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Nuncio in Damascus: Syria sliding into hell, children used as human shields
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