.- On behalf of Pope Francis, the secretary of the new Vatican department for Promoting Integral Human Development made a six-day visit to the Syrian city of Aleppo, ravaged by years of conflict between rebels and pro-government forces.
Lead by the secretary of the new department, Mons. Giampietro Dal Toso, the delegation visited the Syrian city Jan. 18-23, and marked the first official visit by representatives of the Holy See after the city’s four-year conflict ended Dec. 22.
According to a Jan. 24 communique from the Vatican, “the delegation was able to meet the Christian community and their pastors, who expressed gratitude to the Pope for his constant concern for the beloved Syria.”
Neo-Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, and Thomas Habib, Director of the Apostolic Nunciature, were also part of the delegation, which traveled to Catholic charities and refugee camps in the area.
Conceived by Pope Francis and his Council of Cardinals, the new department – also called a dicastery – took effect Jan. 1. The new congregation takes on the tasks of the former Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, Cor Unum and Healthcare Workers.
While in Aleppo, the group also helped to launch a humanitarian assistance center run by Caritas Aleppo in the Hanano district of the city.
They met with both civil and religious authorities, who expressed gratitude to the Pope for making Zenari a cardinal along with the other 18 prelates who got the red hat in the Nov. 19, 2016, consistory, and for his special closeness to the Syrian people.
Since many hospitals in Aleppo have been destroyed by bombs and shelling, the Vatican representatives also examined the structures of local Catholic hospitals in preparation for a project to rebuild and restore them.
Also spending time in ecumenical activities, the delegation attended an ecumenical prayer gathering organized to mark the Week for Prayer for Christian Unity, an international Christian ecumenical observance celebrated annually.
They also met with representatives of Islam, where the importance of educating religions in peace and reconciliation was discussed.
After an agreement was reached between the warring sides Dec. 15, 2016, the Syrian government announced Dec. 22 that it had taken full control of the city for the first time since it came under battle in July 2012.
While this means the immediate humanitarian crisis in Aleppo is over, Syria is still in the midst of a civil war. While the vast majority of the city had fled, the UN estimates that 40,000 people, and more every day, have since decided to return to Aleppo, BBC News reports.
The need for aid is still great, as people are either taking shelter in their old homes, many of which are destroyed, or moving into other empty buildings until something better can be found.
As the delegation communicated after their visit, it is imperative that the support of the universal Church and the international community continue to grow to meet the growing needs of the Syrian people, especially in the areas of food, clothing, education, health care and housing.
The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, has claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people, and forced 4.8 million to become refugees, about half of them children. Another 8 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced by the violence.