ROME– Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, the pope’s ambassador in Syria, avoids interviews: “Because of the work I do,” he says, and not without his reasons. Syria is in the midst of a civil war that began seven years ago, a conflict that’s been described as the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.
Technically the “Apostolic Nuncio,” he’s one of the few ambassadors left in a country in which the statistics of violence are appalling. The ongoing war in Syria has produced at least 400,000 dead, 5 million refugees, 6.3 million internally displaced people and untold numbers injured.
I reached out to Zenari in July, and finally had the opportunity to speak to him on September 22. The one-hour conversation took place in the Casa Santa Marta, the hotel within the Vatican grounds where Pope Francis resides. Zenari offered an analysis of the complex situation in Syria, including how Christians live and what the Church has done.
“If we talk about suffering, everyone is in the same boat. The suffering is transversal,” he said. “But Christians are the weakest link.”
Zenari arrived in Syria more than eight years ago to be papal representative. But he has been a member of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps for the past 37 years, including 18 years as nuncio to Ivory Coast and then Sri Lanka.
Just over a year ago, Francis surprised him by making him a cardinal: “A cardinal must be ready to give his life for the faith,” Zenari said. “Soon I thought that the cardinal’s red [vestment] will honor the blood of so many innocent children who have died in Syria.”
You were in Germany for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then in Sri Lanka and in Ivory Coast during their respective civil wars. How did these experiences prepare you for what you’re living today in Syria?
Zenari: I always joke that I am a nuncio veteran of war, because I have been in countries in civil war for 18 years. But in other places, the conflict was limited. In Syria, from the beginning, I had the perception that the conflagration would extend to neighboring countries.
It ended up going very far, with the terrorist attacks in France, Germany, England … In the first two years, I was able to visit Syria. It is a beautiful country, a haven for archaeologists, with civilizations that go back 5,000 years before Christ.
The history of the Church is there, too, is it not?
Why is it that 1.6 billion people call themselves “Christians”? We could be called “Jesuits” or “Nazarethans” because of “Jesus,” but a few years after Jesus ascended to heaven according to the Acts of the Apostles (11,26) the disciples of the Lord were first called “Christians” in Antioch of Syria. There they gave us that name. Antioch, under the French protectorate, passed to Turkey. But it was in Syria.
And the Apostle St. Paul was in Syria too, right?
We all remember the “Way of Damascus,” where this young Saul, a fundamentalist, had the resplendent vision of the Lord. He became the apostle of the people at the gates of Damascus. And when the Lord says to Ananias, go to the street called “Straight,” an unbending road still preserved in Damascus. St. Paul walked there. Until the arrival of Islam in the year 636, Syria was all Christian. It gave six popes to the Church and four emperors.
And Jesus was born in Bethlehem on Christmas night, when the governor of Syria was Quirinus. Politically, Jesus was born in the Roman province of Syria. We cannot forget that.
Today, however, Islam prevails …
Before the current conflict [which started 7 years ago], Syria had 23 million people. Of these, 70 percent were Sunni Muslims, 12 percent Alawites, who may be considered Shia, but are Alawite. Then, Christians were 6 percent. After WWII, Christians were 35 percent, and declined in number as the birth rate dropped. Muslims have large families. I have seen cases of 20 to 26 children. Christians have two or three.
Unfortunately, with the conflict, minority groups are the weakest link. And among the Christians, because they are not armed, close to half have decided to leave. Today, we are 2-3 percent of the population.
Has the situation become worse in the years since you’ve been in Syria?
It’s a disaster. I arrived in Syria two years before the conflict. It was a country that was developing and, with the winds of the Arab Spring, plunged into this wave of violence. The conflict became more complicated. From peaceful demonstrations for more freedom, more respect for human rights, the repression by the regime [of President Bashar al-Assad] led to an armed struggle.
The entry of external forces, [Islamic fundamentalist] jihadist groups, led to a proxy war, and then an international war. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. On the other, Iran. And then the intervention of Russia for strategic reasons, and the United States and Turkey.
And the Islamic State …
When a body is sick, other problems appear. But it’s an external phenomenon and everyone agrees it has to be kicked out, each with different strategies. However, there are seven or eight flags that fight in Syria and once the Islamic state is eliminated, they will all fight against the other. So far there is no agreement on the future of Syria.
How do Christians live?
If we talk about suffering, everyone is in the same boat. Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Druze … suffering is transversal. It cannot be said that a group suffers more. Numerically yes, because the majority is Sunni. But they all have had dead, wounded, refugees, displaced, villages destroyed, factories lost. All. But if we look at the risks, it is greater for minorities, and therefore for Christians.
Is there a risk that Christians will disappear from the region?
It’s still somewhat uncertain. Because this regime began more than 50 years ago, supported by a minority of Alawites, 12 percent, and it was smart: It gave privileges to minorities to have political support. The Christians had no problems about religious freedom. The ecclesiastical tribunals were recognized, they built churches, they held processions.
Relations with Muslim communities, more than 70 percent of the population, were good. Christmas day, Easter, was a holiday for everyone. Each greeted the other on feast days. Islam in Syria was not fanatical, it was moderate. Now, things change.
Is there a dialogue between religions today?
At the level of bishops, imams, priests, there is a good dialogue. There is also ecumenical dialogue: [in a country with] 70-80 percent of Muslims, Christians are united, whether or not they are Orthodox or Catholic. We speak only of Christians and Muslims.
The Christian clergymen who have disappeared in recent years, were they captured by the Islamic State?
No one knows. We have five clergymen who’ve been missing for more than four years: Two Orthodox bishops and three priests. Nothing is known of their fate. There are about 30-40,000 missing people in these years. [They’ve been] kidnapped, used for trade, and in the meantime, many have died. It’s a great suffering.
Millions of young people cannot study in Syria. Will this have an impact for many years?
This varies but one school out of three is unused. About 2 million school-aged children do not go to school. By the time they reach the age of 18-20, many young men emigrate to avoid military service. Because the young people who entered the army seven years ago, if still alive, are still in the military.
There is great uncertainty about the future. I call the migration of young people a “bomb,” in quotes. We have a society and a Church without young people.
And many among the migrants are Christians …
The departure of Christians is an impoverishment because, in general, they have a universalist mentality. They think of the world, the pope, other Catholics. I always say: Every Christian who leaves is, for Syria, a window to the world that closes. Syria risks becoming a monocultural, mono-religious society. Christians have had a big historical influence in Syria.
But does the Church stand for the freedom to migrate?
Freedom of movement is sacrosanct. However, one must also help them stay, not only economically, but spiritually. If you are not under the bombs and have a good job, you should think about witnessing the faith in Syria. Give your contribution to the country. But the country must also make Christians feel good.
In Muslim countries, Christians feel like second-class citizens. Theocratic countries are “Islamic republics.” For Muslims, it is a long way from separating religion from the state and reaching the concept of citizenship. Syria was ahead of it, it had a secular tendency, an “Arab Republic.”
How are the relations between the Holy See and the Assad government?
The Holy See always maintains its representative. It does not remove it. And I, along with 8-10 other ambassadors, am there. For the churches and for service to the country, trying to promote peace. Much of the nunciature’s activities are to organize humanitarian aid with Caritas Syria and other agencies. And Syria has an embassy to the Holy See, which is in Geneva. It’s a channel of communication.
Do you talk to other rebel groups, for example?
No. Here, I’m not even allowed, because then I would go against the government …
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for foreign affairs, told the United Nations that an “intra-Syrian” solution, that is, an internal solution, was needed. Is it the official position of the Church?
Yes. That is also said by others: Intra-Syrian dialogue. But, as I said, there are six or seven external flags. Each has a military and weapons, and are more or less independent. How is dialogue between Syrians possible when there are others?
So is an international solution fundamental too?
The support of the international community is fundamental. But support. However, do these flags give support or are they involved in the conflict? I do not know how much free dialogue between Syrians is possible. But I wanted to point out that the problem of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen is fundamentally caused by countries in the region.
Are they the root of the problem themselves?
The contrast that exists in Syria is between the Gulf countries plus Saudi Arabia, and Iran. It is the same in Iraq, where Sunni and Shia are causing problems. And in Yemen. This is the basis of the problem. It’s more a political issue than religious, but it is a fact.
There is antagonism between two powers. Each one wants to have dominion over the region. Sometimes I say that it would be enough to put them on the same table and, if they can shake hands, much of the question is solved.
When you meet Pope Francis, what does he say?
He is informed. He knows of the suffering of the people, and indeed, I must speak of my surprise when he appointed me a cardinal. A cardinal must be ready to give his life for the faith. A cardinal’s red [vestment] will honor the blood of so many innocent children who have died in Syria, so many civilians.
In the modern history of nunciatures, I am the only cardinal nuncio. In general, they are archbishops. It was a sign from the pope for the martyred Syria. We also recall the prayer of September 7, 2013, in St. Peter’s Square, which had a great reverberation, at a time when one thought of [foreign] military intervention.
Then there’s the speeches of the pope. Each time he meets heads of state and ministers, the Syrian dossier is present. In 2016, the Catholic Church has funded $200 million for development, education, health, and food projects in Syria and the region.
Syria has so many martyrs. What do you think about martyrdom?
The word “martyr” is used in a very broad sense. I speak only of Syria, and not of Iraq or Egypt: one cannot speak of a real persecution against Christians. They had many threats, churches destroyed and looted, insults and some churches became Sharia courts [for Islamic law]. I remember three parishes, dominated by the Al-Nusra group, where they let the Christians survive, with limitations, but they can go and pray.
In the areas of the Islamic State, we no longer have Christians. I point out that so many mosques were destroyed as well, and so many Muslims were beheaded by the Islamic State. All suffered.
But Christians are the weakest link. They have more risks for the future. Those who suffer most are children and women. Physical and psychological trauma. I do not yet see a way out, but there has been a reduction in violence in some areas, a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid. That’s something you can only get now.
This interview appeared originally in O SÃO PAULO in Brazil and is published here in full with permission.