In an exclusive interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, has decried the tragic situation in ‘martyred,” “beloved Syria,” repeating a Syrian journalist’s chilling words: ‘I believe the hardest way to die is in silence.”
Recently, the Apostolic Nuncio was in Rome where he spoke to a gathering of Ambassadors to the Holy See in the Vatican, organized by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, about the enduring crisis and new threats facing the Middle Eastern nation.
The war that began in Syria in March 2011 has caused what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has called “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.” According to 2016 data, the UN agency estimated that the humanitarian emergency has affected 13.5 million Syrians, including 6 million children. The majority, almost 9 million people, live in food insecurity, without access to basic supplies.
In this wide-ranging interview, the Cardinal sheds much light on the whole traumatic situation and what is needed. While always saying hope must not die, he warns of heightened risks of fundamentalism which could put us all at risk.
After witnessing this ongoing bloody conflict claiming so many lives, including many children, he notes how many children now from extreme poverty will die from malnutrition. He appeals for the International Community to take concrete action, amid the nation’s destruction, fragility and poverty.
“The exemplary mosaic of coexistence between different ethnic groups and religions, which existed before the conflict, is preserved in part, although it has suffered damages,” Cardinal Zenari said, but “now,” he warns, “there is the risk of the emergence of a certain fundamentalism.”
“The role of the so-called “civil society” must be promoted, to avoid the danger of falling into the hands of fundamentalists and extremists in the future, or, as usually said, “from falling from the pan into the fire!” he says.
Here is ZENIT’s exclusive interview with Cardinal Zenari:
ZENIT: Your Eminence, you told the ambassadors that to date Syria has disappeared from the radar of the international media. Among other things, it is unusual for an apostolic nuncio to hold a meeting in the Vatican with world ambassadors. Why did you want to meet them and with what hopes?
Cardinal Zenari: In the past days I was in Rome to meet with Pope Francis and to update him on the situation of the martyred Syrian population and, in particular, of Christians. From that meeting, the idea was born to seek to involve the International Community to a great extent, by meeting with the Ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. I reminded them of the concern expressed by Pope Francis on January 9th of this year, when he met with them in the Vatican for the exchange of New Year’s greetings, and I quoted his words: “I refer first of all to the blanket of silence, which risks covering the war that has devastated Syria in the course of this decade.”
I wished to remind of the need for solidarity, especially in a globalized world such as ours, quoting a passage from the Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” where it says: “We have the need to make the awareness grow that today either we are all saved or no one is saved. Poverty, degradation, the sufferings of an area of the world are an unspoken breeding ground of problems, which in the end will touch the whole planet” (n. 137). I also quoted the passage that, commenting on the evangelical parable of the Good Samaritan, states: “We all have a responsibility regarding the wounded, that is, the people themselves and all the peoples of the earth” (n. 79).
ZENIT: What else did you share with the diplomats?
Cardinal Zenari: I also reported the anguished appeal of a Syrian journalist, with the pseudonym Waad Al-Kateab, who in an article that appeared in “The New York Times” on February 7, 2020, entitled “We Are Left to Face Death Alone,” wrote: “Over the past nine years, we Syrians have been killed in every way possible: by barrel Bombs, shelling, guns, chemical weapons, torture, starvation. But I believe the hardest way to be killed is in silence, so I keep telling our stories. It is my duty, my responsibility as a woman who survived. This is the fate of those who have escaped: to endlessly retell our own stories and tell the stories of others still in Syria.”
My meeting with the Diplomats was intended to be, more than anything, a “brain storming,” or “food for thought,” with the hope that it might promote some concrete action in favor of martyred Syria.
ZENIT: Can the civil war be defined as ended throughout the Syrian territory or not? And where the fighting has stopped, how is the reconstruction proceeding?
Cardinal Zenari: Unfortunately, after about 10 years, the war in Syria has not yet ended. In force in the northwest province of Idleb from the beginning of March of this year is, at times, a fragile cease-fire. Moreover, in the northeast, the politico-military situation is not at all clear. About 30% of the territory remains outside the government’s control. Here and there, especially in the desert areas, ISIS groups carry out every now and then terrorist attacks.
Even if the worst seems now to have passed, it must not be forgotten — as Geir Pedersen, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, reminds –, that on the Syrian ground and skies the Armed Forces of five countries still operate in disagreement among themselves.
If in different parts of Syria bombs have not fallen for some months, that which could be described as the “bomb” of poverty has exploded, which, according to UN data, affects over 80% of the population, reducing it to live under the threshold of poverty. The Syrian Lira has lost much of its value. The prices of consumer goods have risen uncontrollably. In front of Damascus’ bakeries the people queue to try to buy bread, still available, at prices facilitated by the government. The cases of children suffering from malnutrition are growing.
ZENIT: Could you elaborate more on this?
Cardinal Zenari: Where combats have ceased, signs of reconstruction are not yet seen. The mountains of ruins must first be removed. Suffice it to think of eastern Ghoutas, of certain neighbourhoods of Homs, of east Aleppo, of Raqqa and still others. According to the experts, for the reconstruction and the start up of the economy, several hundred billion US dollars are required. In addition, homes, hospitals, schools and factories must be reconstructed. In some localities, some dwellings are being repaired with the help of benefactors.
It will also be necessary to restore the environment, because the air, the soil and the water have been polluted, in these past ten years of war, by all sorts of arms and explosives, whose noxious effects are poured out inevitably on the people’s health even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also affecting the population, although still in a controlled way, according to the official data.
ZENIT: Many Syrians fled abroad during the war, many others remained in Syria but were forced to leave their homes. What is the situation now for refugees and internally displaced persons? Is there hope for them to resume their pre-war life?
Cardinal Zenari: About 12 million people, namely, half of the Syrian population, have been forced to leave their homes, villages and cities. The internally displaced are more than six million, some of them have been displaced several times, even up to five or more times! To all the displaced in their country, Pope Francis wished to reserve this year a particular remembrance on the Day dedicated to Migrants and Refugees. About 5.5 million are refugees in neighboring countries. Number 130 of the Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” is dedicated to those fleeing from grave humanitarian crisis. Others, probably about one million, have emigrated abroad, in general young and prepared people, who leave unbridgeable gaps in Syrian society. Here and there people have returned to their dwellings and villages, especially those internally displaced, but their number is still quite reduced. To make these millions of people return in security and dignity is an enormous challenge, not only for the Syrian authorities but also for the International Community. It’s about having to reconstruct whole districts and villages, with the necessary infrastructures, such as water, electric current and other essential public services. And how can jobs be given to all these millions of people? To consider these questions, the authorities of Damascus have convened an “International Conference on the return of refugees,” which will be held in the capital from November 11-12th.
ZENIT: Clearly this will take time…
Cardinal Zenari: These are enormous challenges that require years. Not to speak of the many families destroyed, of war widows that must be maintained, in very precarious circumstances and numerous children. Moreover, it’s necessary to ensure peaceful coexistence, sometimes gravely compromised by the conflict between the various ethnic groups. Time will be necessary before seeing the mosaic of harmonious coexistence restored as it was before the conflict. Moreover, it will be necessary to try to heal spirits, especially of the many children, who bear the profound scars of violence suffered, or which they have witnessed.
ZENIT: And how would you describe the situation of the Christian community? Syria was a country where the coexistence between different ethnic groups and religions was harmonious and peaceful. And what do you think it will be like in the future?
Cardinal Zenari: Given the emigration caused by the circumstances, the Christian community is more than decimated. Sacred buildings and sacred religious symbols have been damaged or destroyed. In some cases, Christians have suffered abuses, intimidations, pressure of conversion to Islam by jihadists. Of five ecclesiastics, among whom two Orthodox Metropolitan Bishops, absolutely nothing is known of their fate, after seven years of their disappearance. As always in these types of conflicts, the minority groups are the weakest link in the chain.
There is no doubt that the gravest wound inflicted on these Oriental Churches is given by emigration. A good number of sacred buildings, including the principal cathedrals of Aleppo, have been reconstructed, the stones have been put back in their place and buildings of worship have returned to their previous splendor, sometimes even more beautiful than before! Lacking, however, are many “living stones,” especially young people. This emigration is an enormous damage not only for the Churches in Syria, but also for Syrian society itself. In the course of two thousand years of presence, Christians have made a notable contribution to the development of their country. Suffice it to think of their important contribution in the field of education and health, as well as in the artistic, literary and political field. It’s enough to remember Fares Al-Khoury, a Christian and great statesman, still remembered today with great esteem, who was the Prime Minister in the first years of independence. Ultimately, with their open and universal spirit Christians represent for Syrian society itself as an open window on the world. This window, unfortunately, is closing little by little with each departure.
The exemplary mosaic of coexistence between different ethnic groups and religions, which existed before the conflict, is preserved in part, although it has suffered damages. Now there is the risk of the emergence of a certain fundamentalism. The role of the so-called “civil society” must be promoted, to avoid the danger of falling into the hands of fundamentalists and extremists in the future, or, as usually said, “from falling from the pan into the fire!”
ZENIT: And after speaking to the ambassadors, what would you say to the peoples they represent, to world public opinion? What can they do for Syria?
Cardinal Zenari: I have spoken to the Ambassadors so that they may transmit the message to their respective governments. t’s about reviving solidarity at a moment in which, as Pope Francis said during the Vigil of Prayer in the parvis of St. Peter’s Square on March 27 of this year the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has made us aware that we all find ourselves in the same boat. And so, if water enters Syria or in any other part of the world, even far from us, we are all at risk. In these long years of bloody conflict I’ve seen people die, including children. Now I’m also seeing hope dying in the hearts of many people. Let’s not let hope die! Let’s not bury it under a blanket of silence!