Cardinal Zenari: risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria with the Church as a field hospital

Syrian patients treated in a Church-run hospital.

A “humanitarian catastrophe” is still a real possibility in Syria, given the latest reports from the United Nations, which show that over the past two months, the offensive against Idlib has already generated “about 700,000 new internally displaced persons. Such an “impressive” number comes on top of “the other millions” who became refugees in the past few years, this according to Mgr Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Damascus.

Speaking to AsiaNews, the cardinal noted that the country’s situation remains critical and the Church is increasingly acting like “a field hospital”.

At present, the main problems are in north-western Syria, where the regular army has been involved in a massive offensive in the Idlib region, the last stronghold still in the hands of jihadi groups and Turkey-backed rebel forces.

Since December, 689,000 people have been displaced, a figure bound to rise in the coming weeks in the event of an escalation, as David Swanson, spokesman for the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) points out.

Military escalation

In his recent dual appeal, Pope Francis could not hide his pain for the “the plight of so many women and children, as well as people forced to flee because of the military escalation.”

On this occasion, the pontiff again urged “the international community and all the actors involved to use diplomatic channels, talks and negotiations, in accordance with international humanitarian law, to safeguard the lives and welfare of civilians.”

“Pope Francis,” explains Card Zenari, is referring “to the situation in Syria” using two images: The Church as going forth and the Church as a field hospital. In fact, one of its main missions is humanitarian outreach, thanks also to the help from Christians all over the world and from various Catholic institutions.”

The cardinal reminds us that the poor, the sick and the hungry “are knocking on our doors”. The latest IDPs join 13 million people affected by the war. These people “need humanitarian assistance, food and medicines. More than half of Syria’s population are in need.”

In this context, “the Church is smaller in number but very much involved. We are in the front line to meet basic needs, bring medicines, help against the cold. Here the temperatures are below zero and the distress is great; the cold compounds the hunger.”

To meet the huge demands, the Syrian Church – with the help of the Holy See and Pope Francis himself – launched the Open Hospitals project three years ago with two medical facilities in Damascus and one in Aleppo. These hospitals, today are among the few functioning medical facilities.

Silence and indifference

“At the end of 2018, the World Health Organisation estimated that only 44 per cent of Syria’s hospitals were still in operation; the rest were either shuttered because of war damage or operating at a minimum. A year later, the figures are even worse.”

The assistance offered by the three Catholic hospitals is essential in a country where “eight out of 10 people live below the poverty line”.

Last December, “more than 30,000 patients were treated but the goal is to treat 50,000, the poor of any ethnicity or religion.” Since Christians are but 2 per cent of the population, most patients are Muslims.

The work has “two goals, heal bodies and send people home and heal society.” It is also rewarding for the nuns working in the hospitals. “Several times our Muslim friends say it is touching to see Christians care for children and seniors. We try to heal the body and rebuild social ties; as a result, respect for Christians is growing.”

Regrettably, “the situation in Syria is not improving,” the cardinal said. “We shall have to continue our efforts and deal with the health emergency.”

For this reason, the help and solidarity of the Churches and Catholics around the world is important; above all, it is crucial “to keep our eyes on Syria and not let the curtain fall” on the tragedy “that is taking place. The worse way of being killed is by silence and indifference.”