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SÃO PAULO – Church leaders across Latin America are appealing for solidarity with those affected by deadly earthquakes that struck southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria on Tuesday, Feb. 6, causing horrific loss of life and massive destruction.
More than 28,000 people have been reported dead. The toll is still rising, five days after the initial temblor, which was followed by a powerful aftershock and hundreds of smaller tremors. The United Nations on Friday said more than 5 million people may be homeless. Emergency response efforts are ongoing, with stories of gruesome discoveries and miraculous rescues continuing to come in.
The Argentinian Episcopal Conference’s Commission of Ecumenism and Inter-Faith Dialogue issued a letter on Feb. 8, calling for solidarity with the suffering.
Addressed to religious entities that include most of the Syrian and Turkish groups in the country, like the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Islamic Center of the Republic of Argentina, the message also invited the Argentinian people to make donations to the victims, encouraging even small contributions, which “will provide additional assistance and will attend several needs” that are emerging.
News of the suffering was received with commotion in many Latin American countries, especially in places like Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, which have large Arab communities formed especially by people of Syrian and Lebanese extraction.
“In such communities, there are people with family and friends in Syria and even in Turkey, so there is a general feeling of closeness with those countries,” said Carlos White, who heads the Argentinian bishops’ Commission.
“The Bishops’ Conference let it be known that the money collected in the Masses during this weekend will be directed to the Syrian and Turkish peoples,” White said. “Catholics are also helping to publicize the donation campaigns organized by other entities, like the Islamic Center,” he added.
Argentinians have been facing challenging economic circumstances, with high rates of unemployment and inflation. Nevertheless, White said, many people from different parts of the country have been contacting the Church and civic organizations and offering donations.
“Jesus once praised a widow who donated a small coin, explaining that she gave all she had. It is the same thing in a campaign like that. It is not important how much will be donated, but each person’s intention,” he said.
Alberto Arciniega, who heads Caritas Mexico, described a similar social dynamic among his countrymen.
Caritas Mexico is in charge of a donation campaign for the victims of the earthquake that will go on for a month. A Bishops’ Conference’s message called all 96 dioceses in the country to collect donations and send them to Caritas, which will direct the funds to its international counterpart.
“We also suffer with earthquakes in Mexico, and we had two great ones in 1985 and 2017. So, people have much empathy with the victims and tend to contribute,” Arciniega said.
“Mexicans – and Latin Americans as a whole – are very supportive. In general, people give what they have, and not what is left,” Arciniega told Crux.
He recalled a recent campaign to help Ukrainians. “People made themselves available and collaborated the way they could. Maybe we are not talking about great donations, but many, many Mexicans contributed and showed they were here to help,” Arciniega said.
In a number of Latin American countries, there are significant Maronite and Melkite Greek communities, which are now involved in donation campaigns and in an effort to raise awareness of the tragedy in Syria and Turkey.
That is the case in Colombia, where the Arab community is estimated at 3.2 million people. According to Fadi Abou Chebel, the Apostolic Exarch of the Maronite Catholic Apostolic Exarchate of Colombia, the Bishops’ Conference has recently discussed the need to establish a solidarity campaign.
Shortly after the earthquake, the Turkish embassy in Bogota launched a donation drive. It has been coordinating the actions along with Colombian civic organizations. People from all over the nation have been collaborating, according to the organizers.
“The Church campaign will be promoted, I hope, by Caritas Colombia,” Chebel said.
In Brazil, where at least 10 million people of Arab descent live, the Church has been supporting the campaigns promoted by other organizations. That is the case of the Archdiocese of São Paulo’s Caritas, which is endorsing an initiative launched by the Institute for Intercultural Dialogue, an entity founded in São Paulo by Turkish exiles.
“When we are dealing with a humanitarian crisis that emerged in a very distant society, it is hard to know how to make the contributions arrive to the right people. Given that the institute is formed by people who have ties with Turkey, we know that the money will get there,” said Father Marcelo Marostica, who heads Caritas São Paulo.
Muslim institutions and civic organizations are also promoting donation campaigns in different parts of Brazil.
White, from Argentina, pointed out that such campaigns are not only promoting solidarity with the Syrian and Turkish victims of the earthquake, but also putting in contact different religious traditions, which are now working along with the same humanitarian goal.
“I have been in touch with members of Orthodox churches and with Muslims. That effort has a larger significance than the religious particularities of each one. We have to work for the victims,” he said.
Arciniega, of Caritas Mexico, said that the current donation campaigns will have to be extended for a long period, given that so many people in both Syria and Turkey will need much help to rebuild the impacted areas.
“Most people are touched by the pictures of the rescue operations and decide to donate now. But the phase of reconstruction generates less empathy and requires more resources. It will be very important that the people keep supporting them,” he said.