'Beloved' Syria's new cardinal a sign of the Pope's closeness

Nuncio of Syria Mario Zenari at the Cor Unum conference on the Iraqi Syrian humanitarian crisis on Sept 17 2015 Credit Bohumil Petrik CNA 9 17 15 Archbishop Mario Zenari, who will be elevated to the cardinalate at the Nov. 19 consistory, speaks at a Sept. 2015 conference. | Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has said that Francis' decision to give a red hat to the longtime papal envoy to Syria is a sign of the Pope's closeness to the Church and people on the ground amid the country's dire situation.

"With this decision, the Pope wanted to express a great sign of closeness to Syria," Cardinal Parolin told CNA Nov. 13. The gesture goes beyond mere "diplomatic formulas," and is a sign of human and ecclesial closeness.

Pope Francis has already demonstrated his closeness, concern, and interest in Syria "in many, many ways," he said, adding that Archbishop Mario Zenari's elevation "is another manifestation of that interest."

On Oct. 9 Pope Francis announced that Archbishop Zenari and 16 other priests and bishops would be named cardinals Nov. 19, the eve of the close of the Jubilee of Mercy. He has served as the Pope's ambassador to Syria since 2008, and has seen the country continue to deteriorate as their 6-year long civil war continues to rage.

The fact that after accompanying the Church in Syria for so long in increasingly precarious conditions underlines "how the Holy See, through the apostolic nuncio, was there, on the spot, without ever abandoning the people or the Church," Cardinal Parolin said.

The Secretary of State spoke during the Nov. 11-13 conference "Damascus: prism of hope," organized by the Pontifical Oriental Institute in honor of the centenary of its foundation.

The conference sought to discuss an answer to Syria's crisis by getting into the depth of the issues, rather than staying at the surface level.

Both the conference and Archbishop Zenari's nomination as cardinal fall at a time when fighting in Syria, particularly Aleppo, has reached new and bloody heights.

With a humanitarian crisis already looming large in the city, airstrikes and bunker bombs continue to kill hundreds of civilians, including many children, almost daily. Attempts at numerous ceasefires have fallen through as rebel and government forces continue to fight for control of the city.

The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, has claimed the lives of an estimated 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.

In his comments to CNA, Cardinal Parolin said there are certain tendencies today which seek to promote "a world order without God." The temptation to do this, he said, has always been around but so far "has not brought any acceptable result."

He said the belief of the great monotheistic religions born in the region "can become a source of inspiration and concrete commitment for building a more just society with more solidarity."

In terms of what new initiatives might be on the table given the increasing destruction in Syria, Cardinal Parolin said he hopes the conference leads to some "very useful ideas and indications for the future regarding the initiatives to take and positions to assume, to give an impulse so that the war ends through the search for a negotiated solution."

He noted how three years ago, in September 2013, Pope Francis held a special day of prayer for peace in Syria. The cardinal said that while the situation has become more precarious, no such initiatives are currently on the slate, "but they could be thought of."

"I imagine above all a prayer initiative, because prayer has a great power to change things," he said.

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