ROSARIO, Argentina – Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican’s charitable organization, joined Pope Francis in his call for the debt forgiveness for the poorest countries, while condemning the fact that for many regions “there are two pandemics,”  COVID-19  and hunger.

“Two major crises require immediate and determined action by people of goodwill, leaders and all members of the human community,” said Aloysius John, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis.

First of all, international debt “often paid by the sweat and fatigue of the poorest in these countries.” Second, the economic sanctions in the Middle East, particularly Syria, that has had a domino effect on neighboring nations, including Lebanon, that is hosting millions of Syrian refugees.

He also said that Caritas has made a clear request to the finance ministers of the G20 countries, to take concrete action and cancel debts of the world’s poorest nations to avert a catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people.

The comments came during an online press conference for the presentation of Caritas Internationalis’s 2019 Annual Report, that offers insights to the activities of the organization’s 162 regional partners, including picking up the pieces after Cyclone Idai devastated southern Africa, fighting the Ebola epidemic in Democratic Republic of Congo, helping the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and working against human trafficking.

Caritas also provided humanitarian aid in countries that are facing “long-term crises,” including Venezuela and Iraq.

“The vision of a just world is possible only when our societies can grow and flourish, when people’s rights are protected, responsibilities are met and no one is left behind,” says the report. “But sadly, in many places around the world, the rights of the most vulnerable people are often trampled under self-interest.”

“Caritas Internationalis aims to connect the daily injustices suffered by the poor and marginalized across the world to political processes at a global level,” it says. “By taking the voices of the poor to the tables of power we want to influence decision makers so that the world is made better for everyone.”

Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis, said that he’s concerned about the situation in Syria, Lebanon and neighboring countries because “common, poor citizens are the victims of economic sanctions.”

As John noted, “the situation in the Middle East has become drastically worse in the past six months, and the economic sanctions and the embargo on Syria have contributed to make things worse.”

The secretary general of Caritas is convinced that “unilateral sanctions without dialogue or negotiations have never served their purpose, on the contrary, they’ve been counterproductive.” If nothing else, he argued, they’ve proven to be ineffective as an element for political pressure and effective in destroying the lives of the most vulnerable people.

Since the sanctions were applied on Syria, John claimed, prices have gone up, people have no money to buy food, malnutrition is growing, as is the anger against the international community. For poor people, children and the elderly, things are even more complicated.

“The poorest ones are always the ones who pay the highest price,” John said. In these days, “we’re looking with special concern towards Lebanon, that has always been a model of equilibrium for the whole Middle East.”

Rita Rhayem, director of Caritas Lebanon, said that an estimated 75 percent of the total population needs humanitarian aid, and that the local currency has lost 80 percent of it value in recent months. In addition, the country has always been a launching point to help countries such as Syria and Iraq, so if the situation doesn’t improve, the consequences for the region would be catastrophic.

“We’re fighting two pandemics: COVID-19 and hunger,” Rhayem said. “COVID-19 is not the most urgent one. Barter is back in Lebanon: People have started exchanging clothes and shoes for food.”

Despite the grim situation painted by some of the participants in the call, Tagle also sent out a message of hope, saying he was convinced that “many of the changes we’ve experienced and are experience can be an opportunity for the future,” to build a new “connection of solidarity.”

“We’re all members of the one human family, and the sentiment of closeness awakened by the pandemic — that has affected all of us — cannot be forgotten without leaving a concrete sign: The capacity to give new answers,” Tagle said.

The cardinal, appointed by Francis in December 2019 to lead the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said that the worldwide health crisis can lead to an acknowledgement that the international community has to fight against “dramatic situations,” from world hunger to wars and other violence, and called for concrete actions, such as a “global ceasefire.”

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