Apostolic Nuncio: Covid-19 pandemic could be catastrophic for Syria

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A former school in Syria, inhabited by displaced families, being disinfected.   (AFP or licensors)
With 9 years of conflict that has killed over 380,000 people and accounted for more than 12 million displaced persons and refugees, the situation in Syria has become even more desperate, with the coronavirus pandemic looming large, says the Holy See’s Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari.
By Robin Gomes

Easter is approaching and “for the first time, churches in Syria are closed” because of the spread of the Covid-19, Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Apostolic Nuncio to Syria told Vatican News.  

Covid-19 threat
So far, 16 cases of infection and 2 deaths have been reported in the country, where infrastructure for basic services is in appalling condition. 

The war has left more than half of the country’s hospitals non-functional with the lack of drinking water, food, medicine and shortage in healthcare personnel. 

Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are living in overcrowded camps in unhygienic conditions, where it is impossible to think of washing hands to fight the spread of the coronavirus infection.

While churches are closed and Christians are following the guidelines of the authorities, Cardinal Zenari said, charitable and health programmes are trying to continue amid great difficulties.

The Italian cardinal explained that the humanitarian initiatives, supported by the generosity of many Christians around the world, were suspended some time ago because of the crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.  

The situation has further deteriorated with travel restrictions and border closedowns across the world in the wake of the pandemic. 

This has badly hit the “Open Hospital” initiative, through which a Greek Orthodox hospital and a few small dispensaries were providing free medical service to the poor and sick people. 

Donor fatigue, ceasefire, sanctions
Noting a drop in aid from individuals and the international community in recent years, he lamented that people and the media today are less interested in the Syrian tragedy.   

He cited a Syrian journalist who remarked that Syrians are “just left to die”.  The cardinal said this is also the risk that Syrians are running should a coronavirus pandemic break out.

Cardinal Zenari backed UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, who has called for a global ceasefire and the lifting of sanctions on certain countries, including Syria, to ensure food and medicine to fight COVID-19.  

Pope Francis who has backed Guterres, has also urged for creating corridors for humanitarian aid.

This terrible pandemic, the cardinal said, should be an opportunity to silence forever the din of weapons in Syria and initiate a fair political solution.

“It would be unforgivable if it were another missed opportunity.”   

Wondrous ways of God’s compassion
Syria, which is in the 10th year of its ongoing conflict, is in solidarity with the rest of the world that is grappling with the coronavirus emergency, Cardinal Zenari said.

Despite the grim situation of the Syrian people, the Holy See’s representative draws hope from Jesus who had “deep compassion” for the hungry crowd, the son of the widow of Nain and Lazarus as narrated in the Gospel.   

The Italian cardinal does not doubt the Lord’s compassion for the suffering of Syria and the world, where many people are infected by the virus.  In Jesus, he said, “we see the heart of God who is moved to compassion for the many innocent victims of war, violence, natural disasters and the coronavirus.”

He is certain that “God’s emotion and compassion do not remain distant and inert, but acts in “forms we do not imagine”.   

In this regard, Cardinal Zenari pointed to the Good Samaritan and the boy whose 5 barley loaves and 2 fish Jesus used to feed the multitude. 

“That boy and that Good Samaritan,” he said, “represent hundreds of thousands and millions of generous people who are moved to compassion for the needy.”  Likewise, the cardinal said, there are also many Veronicas and Cyrenes.    

The Holy Week
Speaking about preparations for Easter, Cardinal Zenari said that in “all these years of war, the Holy Week liturgies had never been omitted, even under the bombs and shells”.  This is the first time that churches are closed in Syria. 

However, he said, “Easter is lived in union with all the Christians of the world”. The mystery of the Passion of the Lord, the cardinal said, is being lived in this dramatic moment by the whole of humanity, awaiting the resurrection amid the sound of bells and the siren of ambulances. 

When asked about living Christ’s Resurrection amid the devastation and the nightmare of the pandemic, the Vatican diplomat recalled an episode on Good Friday in 2020.  

A sacristan in Homs asked the parish priest, where he could prepare the “Calvary” for the day’s liturgy. The pastor asked him to take a long rope and go around a destroyed neighbourhood and when the circle closed, to put up a large inscription, “Calvary”.   

This Good Friday, after 10 years of unspeakable suffering, death and destruction, that rope must be very long, the cardinal said.  It is as long as the border of Syria and the regions hit by Covid-19.  Hence, “the inscription “Calvary” must be planted on the globe”.