ROSARIO, Argentina – Cardinal Mario Zenari, papal representative in Syria, warns that despite the war that afflicted this country for the past decade being seemingly over, there are several “bombs” still going off in the country, including that of extreme poverty and an exodus of the brightest minds to other nations.
“I have been in Syria for the past 12 years,” the Italian prelate said. “I saw this very terrible, very bloody conflict every day. We had very difficult moments, with bombs falling all over Syria, here in the capital mostly rockets and mortars.”
“Now, thanks be to God, in much of Syria there are no more bombings, except in the Northwest where there is a truce,” Zenari told Crux over the phone on Monday. “But for the past two years, we have had another bomb: That of poverty, which affects 83 percent of the population.”
According to the United Nations, Syria today has one of the highest numbers of people living in poverty in the world, and earlier this year, the UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock said that the Syrian economy, devastated by nearly a decade of conflict, has entered a period of extreme fragility marked by exchange-rate volatility, high inflation, dwindling remittances from Syrians working abroad, and the negative effects of lockdown measures to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Zenari spoke with Crux after a Vatican-organized Zoom summit to discuss the situation of Syria and neighboring Iraq, which took place last Thursday. The Vatican´s Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development has been organizing similar gatherings to discuss the ongoing Syrian crisis every two years for almost a decade.
Despite the fact that it was shorter than usual, it helped to shine some light on what’s happening to the Christian communities in the Middle East.
“The media has forgotten about Syria,” the cardinal said. “But more pressing still, the international community has forgotten about us. No one speaks about us anymore.”
Zenari spoke with Crux over the phone on Monday, in Spanish. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
Crux: Syria has disappeared from the public eye. Can you update us on what’s the situation in the country now?
Zenari: I have been in Syria for the past 12 years. I arrived in 2009. I saw this very terrible, very bloody conflict every day. We had very difficult moments, with bombs falling all over Syria, here in the capital particularly rockets and mortars. Now, thanks be to God, in much of Syria there are no more bombings, except in the Northwest where there is a truce. But for the past two years, we have had another bomb: that of poverty, which affects 83 percent of the population. The UN statistics put Syria as the country with one of the largest populations living in poverty.
Never like in the past weeks have I seen the long lines of people who want to buy bread in businesses where bread is subsidized by the State. These very long lines are new.
This is the ticking bomb of poverty. It is affecting practically the entire population of Syria.
An international conference on how to help refugees return to Syria took place last month in Damascus. Organized by the Syrian government, Russia, and others, it did not have much participation. Because instead of wanting to come back, there are people who ask me for help to get out.
They don’t see the light on the other side of this tunnel. One has to be optimistic, to wait, but the situation is tough.
You don’t see reconstruction, you don’t see financial aid. The entire situation is a tragedy. People don’t have jobs, people are getting poorer. People are sick, with COVID, but before COVID we had many illnesses caused by 10 years of all kinds of bombs and explosives, we have war traumas, and many other diseases. The situation is bleak.
What can Catholics throughout the world do for Syria?
Above all, Syria cannot be forgotten. Do not forget the Christians who are in Syria. You know that Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians have had a very important role in the development of the country, with a presence in Syria for more than 2000 years, with a very important role in the development of education, health, and even in political life. The first prime minister after the country’s independence in the late 1940s was a Christian, highly esteemed.
Christians are very important, not just for their churches, but for the whole of society. Christians in Syria are like a window to the world, with their universal spirit, open to the world. And each family that leaves Syria closes that window little by little, and it’s a shame.
It is difficult to know the statistics of Christianity in Syria, but we all agree that more than half of the Christians have left in recent years. And this is a disaster for every church, but also for society. Those who leave are young, qualified, with university degrees. This is another bomb waiting to explode, because for reconstruction, we need young people.
I really don’t how can we leave this situation behind: Today there are 12 million Syrians outside their homes. Some six million displaced within Syria and another as many living as refugees. But how can they possibly come back when their villages are destroyed and there is no infrastructure? It is a disaster, and it is the worst human-made humanitarian catastrophe since the end of the Second World War.
We have to wait. And the international community has to make decisions for reconstruction and for economic aid. The meeting we had last week via Zoom, the help that comes from many Catholic communities, represent very precious drops of water in this dessert that is Syria today. But we need a river of aid in order to rebuild Syria’s hospitals, highways and industries, and that is in the hands of the international community.
Does the international community have a moral responsibility towards Syria?
There is another issue that the international community has to work on but on this situation, there´s a dividing wall with all sides set. Those that can help Syria are Europe, the United States and other Western countries. But there are sanctions in place against Syria that are really hurting a lot. And nothing moves, the parties are firm in their positions. And those who suffer are the people, who instead of wanting to return home, want to leave, because they do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Recently, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis, if the health situation allows it, will travel to Iraq in March. What impact can this trip have on the region?
It is good news that the pope is coming close to Syria. It is truly a push for the Christian community, not only in Iraq, but in the entire Middle East, including Syrians, so that they do not feel abandoned. I believe that all the Christians of the world are going to see that visit of the Pope. It is not just any visit, but one to a country that had many difficulties: ISIS, persecuted Christians who have had to flee …
The pope will travel with a group of people, cardinals, archbishops, but will also travel accompanied by millions of Catholics and Christians from around the world who will follow this visit with solidarity towards the people of Iraq, a visit that asks not to forget this people, in particular Christian communities they are the weakest link in the chain.
In both Iraq and Syria, minorities are the communities most at risk.
This visit of the pope will be an encouragement in the Middle East, even though we hope that one day he can also come through Syria.
Anything else you want to say?
When I see the queues of people waiting to buy bread in Damascus and other places, particularly at this Christmas time, I remember that Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem, which etymologically means the house of bread.
My wish is that all the people here in Syria have their daily bread, and that the Christian communities be Nativity scenes, houses of heavenly bread, but also of the bread of friendship, solidarity, and help.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma