Issued by the Catholic Center for Studies and Media - Jordan. Editor-in-chief Fr. Rif'at Bader - موقع أبونا

Published on Thursday, 30 May 2024
Cardinal Zenari sheds light on Syria’s ‘forgotten war’
Donor countries meet to discuss Syria, but the country's ‘forgotten war’ continues to provoke suffering and the flight of its population (about 500 a day). Speaking to AsiaNews, the apostolic nuncio in Damascus describes a ‘stagnant political process’ while ‘the only progress is in terms of poverty’. The exodus of Christians ‘another great wound that bleeds.’

Dario Salvi/ :

‘This 8th conference in Brussels has two faces, like a coin: on the one hand it is very positive and satisfying’ because it is a sign of ‘international solidarity’ that represents ‘a sip of water in the desert. On the other, however, it appears disappointing’ because in all this time, and it has been years, the situation “has changed little, unfortunately, poverty is increasing, the political stalemate persists”.


These are the considerations of the apostolic nuncio to Damascus, Cardinal Mario Zenari, speaking just a few hours after the donor countries met yesterday in the Belgian capital. The prelate wonders ‘how many conferences we still need’ for the situation to change for the better and for the country to emerge from the crisis.


‘The political process is stagnant,’ the cardinal continued, ‘while what is walking and progressing is poverty: according to the latest UN statistics, there are 16.7 million people in Syria in need of humanitarian assistance, about three quarters of the population, an increase of 9 per cent compared to last year. Because of the war, 90 per cent are forced to live below the poverty line’. 


Brussels Conference: a failure?

The war in Syria, which has killed nearly half a million people and internally displaced about half of the 23 million pre-conflict inhabitants, has long been at a standstill, as have global efforts to add a lasting solution. Meanwhile, millions of Syrians have fallen into poverty and struggle for food, water or medicine. The UN hopes to raise over four billion dollars in life-saving aid to support the 16.7 million needy internally displaced persons or refugees in neighboring countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.


Last year, participants pledged $3 billion within months of the devastating earthquake that ravaged Turkey and Syria, only part of which was allocated. Moreover, the tensions between Iran and the West and the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in response to the 7 October attack, with the involvement of other actors (Houthi in the Red Sea and the consequences on trade) have increasingly made Syria a ‘forgotten crisis’.


Then there is the issue of refugees, the majority between Lebanon and Turkey - in addition to the millions of internally displaced persons - who are increasingly seeing their prospects of returning home shrink due to the lack of stability, both politically and socially.


Moreover, the conference itself has changed with a decline in participation starting with the Russian delegation, a key ally of Bashar al-Assad, which has been missing since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, and the Gulf Arab states themselves, formerly major donors, are investing less and less time and resources.


Cardinal Zenari, who for years has been following Syrian affairs from the Nunciature in Damascus, denouncing first the horrors of the conflict and then the ‘poverty bomb’ that claims more victims than weapons, asks not to look at the nation ‘as a beggar’.


On the contrary, it must be helped to ‘stand and walk with its own legs’ which is also ‘more dignified’. And to do this, we need to talk about reconstruction, about restarting the economy, industry, restarting or creating new factories: ‘I remember what Pope Paul VI said in 1967, that the new name for peace is development. It is the same here in Syria, where there can be no peace without development; where there is misery, the conditions for peace cannot be created. We are grateful for this international solidarity,' he emphasizes, referring to Brussels, but ’a sip of water in the desert does not solve the problem of poverty. We have to start with a political solution, because although we are grateful to the various conferences, they alone are not enough. That is why I hope this eighth will also be the last one’.


Poverty and refugees

‘Last March Syria,’ the cardinal recalls, ‘entered its 14th anniversary of war, ignored by the media and by the international community itself’ with 90% of the population ‘below the poverty line: everyone agrees that the situation has become harsher than during the war years. There is a lack of electricity in much of Syria, many people have an average of two hours of electricity a day; healthcare and schools are a disaster; necessary infrastructure is needed; the economy is collapsing and people are finding alternative solutions. Those who can," Cardinal Zenari says "try to escape, the only way out of this tunnel, especially for the highly qualified young people’ looking for “a way to cross the borders and go abroad”.


Another emergency factor is that of refugees: "The war is said to have caused about half a million deaths, including 29,000 children and minors," says the apostolic nuncio, "and about 12 million, just over half the pre-conflict population, forced to flee their homes, neighborhood and villages. According to UN statistics, there are seven million internally displaced persons and about five million in neighboring countries."


This exodus has led to a new emergency, particularly in Lebanon, which is ‘a small country with a small population and a disproportionate number of refugees,’ notes the Vatican diplomat.


"This is also a serious and urgent issue,’ he continues, ‘but we do not know how to solve it. The UN refugee agency says that there are still no conditions for a voluntary, dignified and safe return, meanwhile people are beginning to lose hope: after the many victims, we are witnessing the very death of hope, people no longer have faith in the future’ so much so that, according to the latest estimates, it is estimated that “about 500 people a day attempt to leave Syria by any means, usually young and qualified”.


Syrian Christians

Similar to the majority of Syrians, and perhaps even more so because they represent a small minority, Christians are also suffering the consequences of the conflict and of the poverty that is now widespread in the country and that has affected several layers of the population.


A community that has paid the price in terms of human lives, exodus, forced disappearances - among the more than 100,000 people who have disappeared into thin air are the Italian Jesuit Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio and the two bishops, Syrian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox, of Aleppo to name but a few - and voluntary flight across the border. This is ‘another great wound bleeding in the heart of Syria."


This is why, for Christians, it is a ‘breath of hope’ the announcement by Pope Francis that the martyrs of Damascus, Franciscans and three Maronites, will be proclaimed saints: their testimony, the cardinal says, is ‘current’ in the way they remember and represent ‘those who have suffered in various ways in this conflict and for the faith."


Syria is "also very important from the point of view of Christianity’, because in addition to having given the name of Christians to Antioch, now Turkish territory, it is the land to which Saint Paul is linked and of the apparitions of the risen Christ. And again, in the first seven centuries it gave six popes to the Church and four emperors, confirming its importance ‘both from the Christian point of view and from the cultural and political standpoint’, underlines Cardinal Zenari.


Lastly, there is the aspect linked to tourism ‘which was on the increase’ before the conflict, thanks also to "archaeological finds that date back four or five thousand years’ and which also supported the Christian community, while today ‘it is a tragedy to see them leave."


Moreover, he recalls, "in conflicts, minority groups are always the weakest link in the chain’ and this is a further detriment when they represent ‘an open window on the world’. ‘Just think," he concludes, "of their contribution in the cultural field, in education with schools, in health care with hospitals, and also in the political field. This too is a very deep wound for the Churches, which have seen more than half of their faithful leave, and for Syrian society itself."