07/05/2022, 13.07
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Nuncio in Damascus: Christian charity is 'meeting point' between war and poverty

by Dario Salvi

Card. Zenari on experiencing in Syria what John Paul II called "the imagination of charity": The Church and Christians are multiplying their solidarity initiatives, but the emigration that risks emptying the community is weighing heavily. Sharing pain and suffering with a wounded nation; children the main victims of the conflict. 



Milan (AsiaNews) - In Syria people are experiencing what John Paul II called "the imgaination of charity", which urges the promotion of "projects and initiatives, from food to water, to aid in the medical field" in the face of resources that are becoming scarcer and an increasingly dramatic reality. The apostolic nuncio to Damascus, Card. Mario Zenari, a long-time Vatican diplomat who has never abandoned the country even in the darkest moments of the conflict, tells AsiaNews about the current situation in Syria in an interview during a recent visit to Italy. The prelate was received in private audience by Pope Francis with whom he shared an increasingly difficult situation for a nation that has long since "disappeared" from the international community's radar.

In spite of this, the Church, and Christians, continue - and if possible multiply - their initiatives, starting with the "Open Hospitals" project, which in less than five years has assisted more than 80,000 sick people of all ethnic, religious and social backgrounds free of charge. And in a framework of resources that are becoming limited, the goal, explains the cardinal, is "to open two more Catholic clinics, to reach the quota of 100 thousand poor sick people treated in our facilities". Because charity, he states with conviction, "when it is open to all, it finds great appreciation even from non-Christians, and becomes a meeting point". Below is our interview with Card. Zenari:

Your Eminence, what is the situation on the gorund in Syria today?

There is a stalemate regarding a possible political solution, which is the key to getting out of these 12 years of war. Humanitarian aid is necessary, but it is a drop of water in the desert. The solution to everything is political, as is repeated in various international assemblies and as the UN special envoy emphasises, because without it there is no future. Unfortunately, it is still a long way off. 

Where can one see elements of hope in this gloomy picture?

The Churches are committed to promoting humanitarian projects and here I would start from a very positive and encouraging sign, represented by the conference held in March of all the Catholic realities. A fine sign of synodality and confirmation of what the nunciature had been expressing for years, namely the need to coordinate the various humanitarian projects. Card. Sandri [Prefect of the Oriental Churches] himself, when he visited last October, insisted on this meeting that brought together for three days in Damascus all 16 eparchies, their respective ordinaries, representatives of the various Vatican departments, the secretary of the Roaco, international Caritas, and also humanitarian institutions of the Church in Syria, male and female religious congregations, and personalities from the three Catholic hospitals... a very encouraging sign! It was the most significant event since the visit 21 years ago of St John Paul II, because it allowed people to meet, exchange views and get to know each other. This is the starting point for coordinating and relaunching the aid collection.

Today we speak of a 'poverty time-bomb' that claims more victims than war. Is the humanitarian situation still dramatic?

The picture has worsened, as the United Nations reports that suffering has never been at such a high level even during the war years. In addition to an unspecified number of dead, perhaps half a million, we have about 14 million homeless, just under seven million internally displaced persons with a winter, the last one, that was extremely harsh and caused many tents to collapse. Another seven million or so refugees in surrounding countries... 14 million out of 23 million, the total population in the last census. A crisis that makes one shudder, to which must be added 13 million in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. What is aggravating an already complicated scenario is the fact that Syria has slipped off the international radar and forgotten and been overtaken by other emergencies: the Lebanese crisis, the economic-financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic and finally Ukraine. 

Does the Syrian population perceive this kind of abandonment?

What I see when I leave the nunciature and meet people, especially young people, is a desire to leave, to flee, to emigrate. They do not see a future and prefer, in one way or another, to leave the country, and this is a further aggravation, because young, qualified people are leaving, doctors, engineers, the workforce: this is another bombshell that also affects Christians, who are the weakest link. To date more than half of the Christian community has emigrated, sometimes lost forever because by going to South America or Europe they are forced to join a majority Church, which is the Latin one, losing their Eastern identity. And it is also a social loss, because of the contribution they make with their open and universal spirit in the field of education or health. 

How is the 'Open Hospitals' initiative, one of the many promoted by the Church, progressing?

We are multiplying our efforts for humanitarian aid, but there is much patience and tenacity to work with because after so many years aid and resources are diminishing, just think of the flow from Europe. The evangelical 'five loaves and two fishes' are fewer and fewer, so we must try to organise ourselves better and better, and the result of this conference in mid-March is precisely this, walking together and optimising the resources dedicated to humanitarian projects.

Card. Zenari, can you take stock of your 13 years as nuncio?

I have tried to live with Christians, I have experienced a lot of suffering, I have tried to participate in this suffering and share it, a pain extended to the whole of Syria. I have tried to share this sea of pain, I feel deeply attached to this people. My eyes have seen and my heart has felt a catastrophe, an enormous tragedy, something terrible and profound, impossible to externalise. At the same time I have seen and experienced so much solidarity, I have experienced the suffering of so many children who are the first victims and the main victims of this conflict.

Yet there is still hope, which never dies, that one day or another we will see the end of this tunnel. Encouraged by the pope, we have experienced what John Paul II called the 'fantasy of charity', the creativity of charity with various initiatives and projects: from food to water, to aid in the medical field. One example: the 'Open Hospitals' project in less than five years has assisted more than 80,000 poor patients of all ethnicities and religions free of charge. We want to set up two more Catholic clinics, to reach 100 thousand poor sick people treated of any ethnicity and religion. When charity is open to all there is a lot of gratitude from non-Christians [Syria is a Muslim majority nation], because charity touches and becomes a meeting point.

Has Pope Francis encouraged you to continue your work?

The meeting with the Pope was a good one, very encouraging and gratifying. He urged me to continue, bringing his greetings and his closeness to the Christian population and to all Syrians. 



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