SYRIA – Vatican sends delegation to newly liberated Aleppo
At the beginning of January Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio for Syria, expressed his desire that 2017 would be a year that “truly marks” a change in Syria – a country that has been devastated by almost six years of war and where the fighting against the Jihadist groups such as Islamic State is still going on.
Cardinal Mario Zenari has just visited Aleppo for the first time since the government took control of the city in December and the bombings ceased. The Cardinal was accompanied by Fr. Giovanni Pietro Dal Toso, former Secretary of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum; Mgr Giampietro Dal Toso, secretary delegate of the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development, along with nunciature advisor, Mgr. Thomas Habib on this trip to assess the citizens’ immediate need for food, housing, clothing, education, and healthcare.
Archbishop Georges Abou Khazen OFM, the Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo for the Latin rite, said “we are all happy. Here people, even non-Christians, never tire of giving thanks for everything that Pope Francis does and says for Syria. We take this opportunity to express this gratitude to the representative of the Pope.”
The activities carried out by the Apostolic Nuncio in Syria included an encounter with Catholic bishops, priests and religious and meetings with civil authorities. Both religious and civil authorities expressed their gratitude for the Holy Father’s gesture in elevating to the dignity of cardinal the Papal Representative to the country. They said this showed the Pope’s special closeness to the suffering Syrian population.
Meetings with Catholic charitable entities highlighted the importance of the assistance they provide for the benefit of all the Syrian population. The delegation visited three Christian emergency hospitals and evaluated the condition of several Catholic hospitals in the light of a future project for their reconstruction and resumption of activity. The Cardinal met families who fled neighbourhoods controlled by rebel groups in two refugee camps run by Caritas and the Jesuit Refugee Service. A new center for humanitarian assistance managed by Caritas Aleppo in the Hanano district was inaugurated.
The delegation also visited destroyed churches and participated in an ecumenical vigil with bishops, priests and faithful of all churches on the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. “We prayed together for the rebirth of Aleppo,” said Archbishop Abou Khazen. The Christian communities and their pastors expressed their gratitude to the Pope for his constant attention to Syria. Emphasis was placed on the responsibility of religions in educating in peace and reconciliation at meetings held with representatives of Islam.
Before the outbreak of civil war in 2012, Aleppo was Syria’s second-largest city. During the four years of conflict it was divided into two sectors: the west controlled by the Syrian government and the east controlled by the jihadist and rebel groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (former Nusra Front), Syrian Free Army and The Islamic Front.
In December 2016 the Syrian government, with Russian support regained control of the eastern area and evacuated civilians and rebels. This sector suffered the worst ravages of the war. UNESCO reported that 60% of the historic part of Aleppo is badly damaged and 30% is in ruins.