The ongoing conflict in Syria has left hundreds of thousands dead or wounded, as well as millions who are fleeing the country. Pope Francis, as well as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have made repeated calls to end the bloodshed while mobilizing Catholic relief organizations in assisting the surrounding countries with the massive influx of refugees.
A representative from the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” stated today that as of now, the Catholic Church has given over €25 million ($33 million) in aid to assist relief efforts in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Middle East since the start of the conflict between rebel factions and Syrian government.
Caritas Lebanon has been one of the major Catholic charities that have helped in aiding refugees escaping the conflict. Its president, Fr. Simon Faddoul, sat down with ZENIT and discussed the challenges in helping those in need as well as the effects of the conflict on the countries bordering Syria.
ZENIT: What are the current challenges that Caritas Lebanon are facing?
Fr. Faddoul: Well there are actually a number of challenges. The first challenge is certainly the funding, appropriate funding for our programs because its not easy especially with the current crisis going on and resources are becoming more and more scarce. The second challenge is actually, because you have people in camp and you have people outside the camp, its very difficult to identify and look at people and try to do something that is meaningful. The third thing is the length of the crisis, it’s not only preventing us from doing our work fully but we have new work every week because every day there are newcomers.
It’s not over, it’s not like we have a million and a half who come and thats it. No, its every day we have newcomers. On the average, about 2,000 people come across every day. It’s crazy! In our registration desk, we have every day about 30-40 families which makes it very hard.
The next challenge is the [diseases] that are starting to spread because of the lack of a sanitary infrastructure, hygiene, proper water, etc. I think when you visit the camps you know what I’m talking about because the conditions are very miserable. Actually, last Sunday Cardinal [Leonardo] Sandri from the Congregation of the Oriental Churches came to a camp to visit and he saw that the situation is very alarming at this time. And then another challenge are the children that are left all over the place. This is a generation that will grow up to be either a fighter or a psychotic person. And then you have the women who are abused and some who resort to prostitution. There are all kinds of iniquities.
Another challenge is the impact of [the refugees’] presence on the Lebanese population, on the Lebanese culture, on the structure, the composition of the demographics. It’s changing the demography of Lebanon. And now, with the “religious war” that’s going on openly, certainly the impact will be bigger with hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom are Muslim.
ZENIT: There have been reports that President Assad has been using chemical weapons. Have there been any refugees coming in who have confirmed that or report any injuries because of that?
Fr. Faddoul: Not really. I was once in a camp with the Foreign Minister of Austria and his delegation and this man came up to us and showed us his son [who had blemishes on his arms and hands] and said that “This is the result of chemical weapons.” And no, this was leishmania. Its a disease that spreads all over [the body]. Its something that could be cured but it comes from a lack of cleanliness, of hygiene. And its spreading. I saw a girl with one on her nose that was very big.
ZENIT: Aside from assisting refugees, have you also assisted in trying to secure the release of those who have been kidnapped, for example the two bishops from Syria who have been missing for almost two months ago?
Fr. Faddoul: Well no, because nobody dares. The problem is that if it’s the government [who is responsible for the kidnapping] then you know that it is the regime. On the opposition side, you have over 100 factions who are fighting there and most of them have come from outside Syria, i.e. Afghanistan, Chechnya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Europe, America, etc. And each have their own agenda, their own way of dealing with things.
Actually, the bishops were going to try to release three kidnapped priests and they were kidnapped themselves.
ZENIT: And there has been no word on their whereabouts?
Fr. Faddoul: No, the Orthodox Patriarch was in Turkey last week. Yesterday I saw it on the news. He said that there are some prospective promises. We hope but up until now there has been no news.
ZENIT: In today’s meeting with Pope Francis, did you you have an opportunity to speak to the Holy Father or did he tell you anything personally?
Fr. Faddoul: Well he sends his best regards to the Lebanese people and he asked me to salute all the volunteers of Caritas Lebanon and the social workers and he told me “You are wiping God’s tears.” He was very touched when he was pronouncing these words to us as a group.
ZENIT: We have thousands of readers around the world who have been following the events in Syria. I’m sure they would like to know how they can help.
Fr. Faddoul: I know ZENIT. I am a reader of ZENIT. Well first, certainly they can help by making contributions, be that to Caritas Lebanon or any other Caritas or church organization in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, etc. Especially inside Syria, they need a lot of assistance. Now we can be of help in that respect because we have contact and sometimes we do cross into the country when it is possible. Actually, Caritas Lebanon has been assisting a besieged Syrian town called Rableh. We’ve been assisting by sending truckloads of food since early August 2012 with the help of our partners because they have financed this in coordination with the border guards.
Now things have eased a little bit but still we are sending [food] because they have nothing. They are out of work, they were prohibited to work in the fields so they were totally dependant on us and on a weekly basis we were sending truckloads of food, medicine, baby diapers, etc.
The readers can also certainly help in prayers, the spiritual side, to unite with our brothers and sisters. They can especially unite with our brothers and sisters who are Christians who I think are paying a much higher price because of the fragile situation.
And they could support the special programs that we have with the Syrians in both Lebanon and Syria. We have programs for children, for abused women, for the elderly, and for vulnerable families.
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For more information or to make a contribution to Caritas Lebanon, go to: www.caritas.org.lb