“A great number of health care facilities have been knocked out by warfare,” the cardinal said. “This is the moment to enhance and help three Catholic hospitals, managed by the religious congregation, that have been working in Syria for more than 100 years.”
Cardinal Zenari has been papal nuncio to Syria since 2008. Pope Francis made him a cardinal during the last consistory, an unusual honor for a residential nuncio that showed papal support for Syria.
The cardinal conceived the idea of the Open Hospitals effort with Msgr. Giampetro Dal Toso, secretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, who visited Aleppo at the end of conflict in the city. The initiative is operated by the Catholic NGO AVSI, with the contribution of the Gemelli Foundation.
The project will collect and financially support three Catholic hospitals in Syria: the French Hospital in Damascus, owned by the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul; the Italian Hospital ANSMI, managed by the Daughters of Mary Auxiliatrix; and St. Louis Hospital in Aleppo, managed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition.
“These hospitals are held in great esteem for their professionalism, but they are also facing great economic difficulties because of the warfare,” Cardinal Zenari said. “As they are private institutes, they also need patients to pay for their care, even with a minimum amount of money. But these sick people cannot even give a minimum economic contribution, as 80 percent of the Syrian population is currently living in poverty.”
About 400,000 Syrians are estimated to have died in the war.
“However, the death toll for lack of health care and medicines is even larger,” the cardinal said. “Yes, it is necessary to repair and rebuild houses and infrastructure. But above all we should 'repair' the physical health of people.”
There are an estimated two million people without health care in Aleppo, and one million more in Damascus. Hence, the necessity to enhance and supply the three Catholic hospitals.
“Each of these hospitals is going to open new departments to face needs and urgencies that came out after the conflict: special departments for traumatized children, for women who were subjected to violence and rape during the conflict, and for those mutilated by war,” the cardinal said.
Reflecting further on the situation in Syria, he said that “suffering in Syria is universal, as every religious and ethnic group had its victims, its martyrs.” But, he added, “Christians are the minority group most at risk, as they have no weapons to defend themselves.”
The papal ambassador recounted that “Christian communities saw their villages and blocks invaded and there were churches damaged and destroyed.”
However, emigration represents the “biggest wound” to the community.
“For example, two-thirds of the Christian in Aleppo emigrated. This is an incalculable loss for the churches. Even if sacred buildings will be rebuilt, the question is whether Christian communities will be rebuilt the way they were before,” the cardinal said.
The churches are committed to charitable works for the whole community, an effort that is appreciated.
When Cardinal Zenari arrived in Syria eight years ago, he said, “there was a certain progress in the economic field, although not all society could benefit from that.”
“Yes, an improvement was needed in terms of respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, but in general Syria was a mosaic of good coexistence among the ethnic-religious groups.”
Now, Syria is “profoundly lacerated by grave external wounds and grave internal wounds.”
Thinking about the future, the papal nuncio saw a need for a Syria that could enjoy the support of all social sectors and avoid the risk of dividing society between winners and losers.
For Cardinal Zenari, the Christian community could act as a bridge in a post-war Syria.
The new Syria should be “reconciled, more respectful of human rights and fundamental freedoms, more democratic,” with a “guaranteed territorial unity and integrity,” he said. He lamented that external forces like the Islamic State group have entered the Syrian conflict, among other regional and international powers.
Cardinal Zenari said that the most urgent challenge for Syria is to stop the violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid.
Citing United Nations data, there are 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid, including 4.9 million who live in hard-to-access places. There are 640,000 people living in 13 places under military siege.
There are 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and 4.8 million Syrians who have become refugees in other countries.
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The cardinal stressed the need for determination to reach a political solution to the conflict. After the conflict, will require restoring the social fabric and working for reconciliation. He emphasized the need to rebuild houses, villages, and infrastructure.