Syria’s leaders and people, Christians and Muslims, welcome Francis’s voice of peace. Assad thanked the Vatican and Card Zenari for staying despite the war. Aleppo has begun to celebrate, but “it is better to wait,” said Mgr Abou Khazen. Residents in west Aleppo offer food and aid to displaced people fleeing the east. The UN denounces atrocities and civilian executions.
Aleppo (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis has sent a letter to the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, through Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria. This is a "historic gesture", a "sign of hope" for everyone and a confirmation of the attention the pope pays to "Syria and its people," Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo of the Latins, told AsiaNews.
"The Holy Father’s role is appreciated by the majority of Syrians, pro- and anti-government, Christians and Muslims,” Mgr Khazen said as he spoke about the papal letter Card Zenari delivered to the Syrian leader yesterday.
"In the absence of Western ambassadors in Damascus, the Vatican’s choice to stay and the pope’s decision to elevate the nuncio to the rank of cardinal are a sign of attention and love. These acts are appreciated by the country’s leaders and people."
In the missive Pope Francis slammed "extremism and terrorism" which are the basis of violence. He expresses solidarity with the Syrian people, battered by five years of conflict that have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions more.
Syria’s state news agency Sana published excerpts of the letter and Syrian TV channels and newspapers have widely covered the meeting between the Syrian leader and Cardinal Zenari.
In the letter, the pope appeals “to the president to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of the civilians and access to humanitarian aid”.
Commenting the letter, Assad congratulated Cardinal Zenari for his new status and his decision to remain in Damascus, despite the conflict.
The president, an Alawi, went on to say that Syria, as a state and as a people, is determined to restore security and stability. He equally renewed his pledge to implement reform to improve life and achieve the goals of peace, security, and development for the country.
"Government leaders, including the president, appreciated the Pope's letter,” the vicar to Aleppo told AsiaNews. “This could be seen in his expression in the official pictures of the meeting. Assad was happy and wanted to show it, thanking the pope for this historic gesture" that "found a wide echo in Syrian media."
“For us in Aleppo and in many other parts of the country,” Mgr Abou Khazen noted, "these are days of hope, ahead of liberation and the almost complete reunification of the city.”
Before the war, Aleppo was Syria’s second largest city, as well as its main economic and commercial hub. After 2012, its western sector, home to 1.2 million people, remained under government control, whilst the eastern sector, with some 250,000 people, fell into the hands of rebel and Jihadi groups.
At present, the army has begun celebrating the almost complete reunification of the city, 90 per cent of which is now under loyalist control.
By contrast, the United Nations and the International Red Cross have warned that civilians are being shot on the spot. At least so far 82 people have been killed, including women and children. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also denounced the “atrocities” committed in the besieged city.
"We have lived through an urban war,” the vicar said, “and feared the worst. It is clear that even one civilian victim is one too many, but we feared a bloodbath, a real bloodbath in house-to-house combat. Since the offensive [started], there have been 400 deaths, a terrible but still limited number."
We hope that the fighting will end soon. "Yesterday, people began celebrating with roads jammed by cars and the streets filled with people. Today it is raining and people are holed up at home, but they see the rain almost as a sign of fate, a purification after years of violence and bombs that rained down from the sky."
Aleppo has stories of help and solidarity. "People in the west have handed out food and clothes to civilians fleeing the east,” the prelate explained. “Nearly 100,000 people have fled their homes in recent days. In many homes there is an atmosphere of cooperation and openness, sharing meals. Christians are also helping out. All this is encouraging on the path of reconciliation.:
"For the future we demand better, but this war has taught us caution. For this reason, it is better to wait and see what happens in the near future." (DS)