John Paul II Foundation / Magazine / H.E. Cardinal Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Damascus, speaks

H.E. Cardinal Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Damascus, speaks

"Don't forget Syria"

Companies, associations, hospitals. So much concrete help has come from Tuscany for a people who have suffered unspeakable pain but have not lost dignity and hope

"This country remains a model of tolerance," says the Nuncio, "but now the situation is dramatic. The peace process is at a standstill, poverty is pressing." "Here is what can be done to help the Syrians."

"Do not forget Syria," are the words that H.E. Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria since 2008, uses in this interview. We caught up with him in Damascus, as he had just returned from a trip to Lebanon. The economic situation is dramatic; children and girls continue to be the first victims despite the end of the war; the reconstruction of the country has not begun; inflation forces long, endless lines for some bread. But Syria, with its model of dialogue between different ethnicities, religions and cultures can be a model "of tolerance, not only for the Middle East, but I would say also for the rest of the world."

A "blanket of silence" has descended on Syria, partly because of the Covid-19 that hit the world, as Pope Francis said. How is life in Syria today, between poverty and Covid-19?

"It must be said that the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has been fairly contained so far, although there have been some critical moments in recent months. This is certainly due to the fact that Syria is a country with closed borders.

Unfortunately, in addition to and even before Covid-19, Syrians are grappling with the "poverty pandemic," which according to UN data affects 90 percent of the population. There have been no more bloody clashes in different regions of the country for a couple of years, but people call this new phase of the conflict as "economic warfare." Because of the deadlock in the peace process, neither reconstruction nor economic start-up is in sight. In addition, corruption, bad governance, Lebanese crisis, worldwide pandemic and sanctions do the rest. In two words, it can be said that Syria is getting poorer and sicker. Not even in the hardest moments of the war were long lines of people seen in front of bakeries selling at government-subsidized prices. The same goes for the long columns of cars stopped at gas stations. I just returned from a short stay in Lebanon. At the border between the two countries one could see Syrians buying Lebanese gasoline on the black market. And in Lebanon I saw several gas stations closed due to lack of fuel!"

Your Eminence, our Foundation has a project for children in Aleppo with the Franciscans. What are the needs of children and girls in Syria today? I understand that cancer cases are also increasing, in addition to the psychological damage caused by ten years of war and the wounds and mutilations that many children carry in their flesh.

"Children are unfortunately the first victims of this long and bloody conflict. Many have died, others have been pulled wounded from under the rubble, others carry irremediable wounds in their bodies and souls. I have seen so many in recent years in hospitals in Damascus, wounded by shrapnel on their way to or from school, some even with amputated limbs. More than two million of them cannot attend school, one out of every three school buildings being taken out of service because of the war. Also increasing is the scourge of child labor, conscription, early marriage for girls, sexual exploitation... The number of children with cancer is also growing. What can be expected from the indiscriminate use, for a good ten years, of explosives of all kinds? Add to this the use of chemical weapons, as determined by the OPCW (World Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). Not only people, but also nature groans in Syria: air, water and soil pollution."

What can we in Italy and Europe do to help the Syrians?

"First of all, do not forget this tormented country, as Pope Francis often repeats. Also, try to bring first aid, as the Good Samaritan did, with that man robbed by thieves and left half dead on the side of the road. Lend first urgent aid perhaps through Christian humanitarian institutions or various NGOs active in the humanitarian field: food aid, medicine, hospital care, housing, work. Act, at the same time, on governments so that the peace process can be resumed and Syria can be put on its feet and able to stand on its own feet, with the start of reconstruction and the economy, where hundreds of billions of dollars are required, according to experts."

I have seen that despite the war, its destruction, poverty, covid-19 Syria is a model of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. How much we too can learn from this fraternal dialogue.

"Syrians are, in general, tolerant people. Syria represents a mosaic of ethnicities, cultures and religions. Some, for example, participate in the main religious holidays of others. The end of Ramadan is a non-working day for all, and so are the Christmas and Easter holidays. Unfortunately, this mosaic, after the long conflict, has suffered some damage here and there. However, Syria remains a model of tolerance, not only for the Middle East, but I would say also for the rest of the world." 

The Pope's visit to Iraq was a long-awaited gift to Christians and Muslims. The Pope often speaks of "beloved and battered Syria." When will he visit Syria again?

"Pope Francis' visit to Iraq constituted a happy event, in some respects also for the Syrian people in general, and not only for Christians. The Pope's visit to Syria will take place as soon as circumstances permit. There is still an unforgettable memory here of the visit that Pope St. John Paul II made in May 2001, when Bashar Al-Assad was recently President. It should also be remembered that Syria, in addition to 4 Roman emperors, has given as many as 6 popes to the Church."

Renato Burigana

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