By Massimiliano Menichetti
The destruction of homes; a chronic lack of food, water, and medicine; violence; looting; people fleeing. 11 years after the start of the war in Syria, the conflict is still going on. But this war, like so many others, is scarcely talked about anymore. And yet it's a country where cities have been reduced to heaps of rubble, that is mourning half a million deaths and has more than 11.5 million internally and externally displaced persons. Today, on the anniversary of the beginning of the conflict, the conference “Church, House of Charity – Synodality and Coordination,” organized by the Congregations for Oriental Churches, gets underway in Damascus. It focuses on listening, dialogue, and the future of Christian communities, but also on the urgent needs of this tormented nation. “Don’t let hope die” is the constant plea of the Apostolic Nuncio to Damascus, Cardinal Mario Zenari, while the country is “off the media’s radar” and entering a sort of “oblivion”.
Your Eminence, there has been fighting in Syria for 11 years. What does this tragic anniversary mean for you?
It is a sad anniversary, first of all, because the war is not over yet and also because for a couple of years now Syria seems to have disappeared from the media radar. First the Lebanese crisis, then Covid-19, and now the war in Ukraine have taken its place.
About half a million people died in this war, and some five and a half million more have fled the country, in addition to another six million internally displaced persons. You keep repeating: “Don’t let hope die.” What is needed to prevent this from happening?
Unfortunately, hope has gone from the hearts of so many people, and in particular from the hearts of young people, who see no future in their country and seek to emigrate. And a nation without young people, and without qualified ones at that, is a nation without a future. Some families, after paying large sums of money, are still stuck in Belarus, waiting to cross the Polish border. The Syrian catastrophe is still the most serious man-made humanitarian disaster since the end of the Second World War. There are still no signs of reconstruction or economic recovery. What is more, sanctions are weighing heavily in all this. The peace process, as envisaged in UN Resolution 2254, is at a standstill. Only poverty is advancing, by leaps and bounds. People are now talking about economic warfare.
More than 60% of the population is affected by food insecurity. What can be done to help?
There is a shortage of bread and now, with the war in Ukraine, also of flour, as well as other basic necessities. From 15 to 17 March, a conference organized by the Catholic Church is being held in Damascus, on the theme: “The Church, Home of Charity – Synodality and coordination.” It foresees about 250 participants, including Syrians and people from abroad, representatives of Catholic institutions and humanitarian agencies. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, some members of Roman Dicasteries, and the ROACO [Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches, - ed.] will also be present. Plans will be made to fraternally share the “five loaves and two fish.”
In this context, the flight of Christians continues...
In these years of war more than half, and perhaps two-thirds, of Christians have left Syria. In these conflicts, minority groups are the weakest link in the chain. This is an irreparable wound for these sui iuris Oriental Churches, but it is also a serious damage for Syrian society itself. Christians, who have been present in the Middle East for two thousand years, have made a significant contribution to the development of their country, especially in the fields of education and health, with very efficient and respected schools and hospitals. The presence of Christians could be compared, for Syrian society itself, to a window that opens onto the world. Christians are generally open-minded and tolerant. With every Christian family that emigrates, the window gradually closes.
Do you think more courage is needed at the level of diplomacy, of international politics?
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, keeps coming back to the need for greater involvement of international diplomacy. Unfortunately, the protracted nature of the conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other conflicts, in particular the war in Ukraine, have turned the attention of the international community elsewhere.
How important is it that the world’s media outlets continue to keep the focus on Syria?
Until a couple of years ago, I used to receive phone calls from various parts of the world for interviews and information on the Syrian conflict. Now the phone is no longer ringing. This is another great misfortune that has happened to Syria: falling into obscurity. This obscurity is hurting people a lot.
Some Syrians, recruited by Russia, are said to have left to fight in Ukraine. It seems that the poverty of the war-torn country is being exploited to fight another war...
I too have read these reports. Something similar happened in Libya a few years ago: Syrian mercenaries found themselves fighting on opposite sides. This is yet another disease caused by war, which is a factory that produces all sorts of ills: victims, destruction of neighbourhoods and villages, refugees, damage to the social fabric, the disintegration of families, violence, poverty, lack of work, drugs, and numerous other ills. Many young people find themselves without work, [and] have learned to handle weapons and enlist for a few hundred dollars.
People generally do not dare to speak out. I join Pope Francis’ repeated and strong admonition to silence the weapons and stop the slaughter. It seems to me that tormented Syria, from experience, understands this pressing appeal. If I may use the Gospel parable of poor Lazarus and rich Dives, surely Syria, mutatis mutandis, wants to sternly admonish others not to fall into the same place of torment into which it has fallen (Lk 16:27-28). It is sad to see, repeated in Ukraine, the same harrowing images of pain seen in Syria: homes destroyed, deaths, millions of refugees, the use of unconventional weapons such as cluster bombs, the bombing of hospitals and schools. Seeing the exact same descent into hell as seen in Syria.
We are in the Lenten journey, a time of prayer and fasting. How are you living this time?
You could say that people, whatever religious denomination they belong to, have been living an uninterrupted Lent and fasting for eleven years. It is important, above all, to remain close and be in solidarity.