“Perhaps the Lord does not see all this?” (Lm 3:36), one might be tempted to say, using the words of the book of Lamentations.
The most precious good
A few years ago, a worldwide survey was carried out among adolescents, in which they were asked the following question: “What is most dear to you?”. The overwhelming majority answered: “My family!”.
How would Syrian teenagers answer today?
At the end of one of the cruellest battles in modern history, the battle of Solferino (Italy) on 24 June 1859, 6,000 soldiers were dead and 40,000 were left wounded on the field. Their harrowing screams were the inspiration for the foundation of the International Red Cross, which was set up to help the war-wounded.
Today, on the battlefields of Syria, as well as in other parts of the world, it is the family above all that suffers injury and destruction, owing to the fact that wars are fought mainly in the cities (Homs, Aleppo, Daraya, Duma , Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor...), where women and children, especially, remain behind.
Having lived through the bloody Syrian conflict for the past eight years, I shall speak especially about Syria, while not ignoring other countries, especially of the Middle-East, afflicted by conflicts, poverty, underdevelopment and natural disasters, the price of which is paid mainly by the family. For 38 years I have lived, in large part, in countries at war and in difficulty. I carry these nations and all the others in my heart, especially this evening.
Syria is a country of ancient civilizations, such as those of Ebla and Mari, with an archaeological heritage that is unique in the world. Furthermore, if we call ourselves Christians, it is because it was in Syrian Antioch that for the first time the disciples were called Christians (Ac 11:26). On the road to Damascus, the Risen Lord appeared to the young Saul, who, from being a persecutor of the Christians, became the Apostle of the Gentiles.
“For huge as the sea is your ruin: who can heal you?” (Lm 2:13).
On 13 April 2018, referring to the ongoing conflict in Syria, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, in addressing the Security Council, did not hide his concern: “Syrians have lived through a litany of horrors: atrocity crimes, sieges, starvation, indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, the use of chemical weapons, forced displacement, sexual violence, torture, detention and enforced disappearances. The list goes on.”
“As with other crisis, the suffering in Syria has a female face. Crimes of gender-based violence have been perpetrated on an industrial scale” ( Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary- General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Brussels II Conference, 25 April 2012).
If on the ground the fighting is taking place between different belligerents, what can we say about the sky jam? Sometimes I felt tempted to pray: “O Lord, the path to heaven is too dangerous! There are Syrian, Russian, Turkish, international coalition and Israeli fighter-bombers, missiles fired from the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Golan Heights and elsewhere, as well as rockets, all whizzing over our heads…!”
To think that it was in these regions that the rainbow appeared at the beginning of history as a sign of peace: “Behold ... my bow in the sky ...” (Gn 9: 12-17). “The heavens, which in God’s plan, were created to sing his praises, are rent by engines raining down implements of death” (Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2018).
THE WOUNDED FAMILY
The Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia was published during the Year of Mercy. Among other things, Pope Francis sees the Exhortation as timely, “because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (AL, 5).
The sufferings of families are the sufferings of the Church, in particular of the local Churches, like in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
For several years now, I have been carrying out my mission as Papal Representative in countries with non-Christian majorities. Hence, I often have before my eyes the reality of natural marriage, regarding which Pope Francis has this to say: “Anyone who wants to bring into this world a family which shows that the Spirit is alive and at work will encounter our gratitude and our appreciation. Whatever the people, religion or region to which they belong!” (AL, 77).
Like olive shoots around your table (Ps 128:3).( AL, 14).
Amoris Laetitia opens, at n. 8, by quoting the Biblical blessing on the family, gathered around the table, with the father, the bride, who is described as a fruitful vine, and numerous children like olive shoots, full of energy and vitality (Ps 128). In Syria, the table was generally set in this way up to a few years ago. Now, unfortunately, in many homes this dining table and the people around it are no longer present. Often there is no father, because he died in war, because he is in military service, or because he has gone away. Sometimes, it happens that the same family is dispersed in various countries: some children in one country, others in another, and the elderly sometimes abandoned. “The absence of a father gravely affects family life and the upbringing of children and their integration into society” (AL, 55), and all too often, all the heavy burden of the family falls on the widowed mother, Pope Francis reminds us (AL, 49).
The idyllic scene of Psalm 128, as Pope Francis says, does not deny the bitter reality of the presence throughout the Bible of pain, evil and violence, which shatter family life and its intimate communion of life and love (AL, 19, 20).
In many cases, the happiness of Psalm 128, “From the toil of your hands you will nourish yourself, you will be happy and you will enjoy every good”, has disappeared. Work is a fundamental part of the dignity of human life (AL, 23, 24, 25, 26). Many people in Syria are out of work because many factories have been destroyed. 70% of the population, according to UN figures, lives in extreme poverty. Bread is missing on many tables. Just read the Reports of the WFP and UNICEF.
The Hunger Pangs (Pope Francis)
As Pope Francis reminds us, in various parts of the world, many people feel the daily pangs of hunger (Lenten Message 2018).
According to OCHA data, 13.1 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance; of these, 5.3 million are children.
And what about so many Syrians who have suffered starvation and died in these 8 years of conflict! Sadly famous, but not unique, -like the Shia villages of Fouah and Kafraya-, is the town of Madaya, which remained completely cut off from the world for six months. According to some International Humanitarian Organizations, from 1 December 2015 to 6 January 2016, 23 people died of hunger, including six children. The Unicef Representative in Syria, after her visit to Madaya, said: “What you perceive is the breadth of hunger. Everyone tells you that they survived with waterlogged prunes, spices, leaves and herbs” (OLJ 16-1-2016). Ali, 16, died in front of her and a doctor who accompanied her. The two women said: “We saw 2 teenagers in the same bed in a basement. They were skeletal. The doctor approached one of them who seemed particularly weak. While she was visiting him, his pulse stopped. She tried to revive him. One, two, three times. Then she looked at me and said simply: ‘He’s gone’. She closed his eyes. The other teenager, his companion, murmured desperately: ‘Is he dead? is he dead?’. Alì’s family wept in silence (OLJ 16-1-2016, also referred to by the Ban Ki-moon-Word Gate on 15-1-2016). “The children are begging for a piece of bread. Some apologize for having bothered you after you answered you don’t have any. They say: “I’m sorry, aunt (polite form of address) to have asked you for a piece of bread!” (AFP 15.01.2016). And what about the city of Aleppo cut off of water for weeks and months?
In the city of Douma, from September 2017 people were forced to adopt “emergency coping strategies … consuming expired food, animal fodder and refuse”. Parents were being forced to provide food for their children on alternate days: “My daughter cries every time I lock her door because she knows today is not her turn and will sleep with an empty stomach” ( WFP report of 22 November 2017).
Hearing these painful testimonies, some texts from the Book of Lamentations immediately come to mind: “All her people are groaning, looking for something to eat” (Lm 1:11); “The children and babies grow faint in the streets of the city. They breathe their last on their mothers’ breasts” (Lm 2: 11,12); “The tongue of the baby at the breast sticks to its palate for thirst; little children ask for bread, no one gives them any” (Lm 4:4).
Fire devoured their young men, their young girls had no wedding-song (Ps 77 :63)
We are moving even further away from the idyllic scene of Psalm 128: the children are missing from around the table.
In March 2012 I was at Lattaquié airport waiting to take my flight to Damascus. Outside there were groups of people, who seemed sad. My flight was delayed by a couple of hours, because they had to land several small planes carrying the bodies of soldiers. Every family in that region counts one or more war victims.
In late January 2018, a taxi driver from the south of the country said to Sr. Teresa: “Within two years, my three sons died as martyrs fighting for their country. My wife died as a result. I no longer feel like living in my house, I eat in the restaurant and I sleep in the car.”
Sr. Rita told me about the case of a family, in which the husband had abandoned his wife and children, to marry another woman. The wife was left alone with a handicapped child, another 18-year-old son who has a casual job, and two daughters who attend high school. They had decided to become prostitutes in order to bring money home. “Extreme poverty and other situations of family breakdown sometimes even lead families to sell their children for prostitution or for organ trafficking” (AL, 46), Pope Francis says with sadness.
A family and a house (AL, 44)
“Families and homes go together” (AL, 44), writes Pope Francis.
In Syria, around 33% of homes have been destroyed. Destroying a home is like destroying, to some extent, the life of a person. This is especially true of the elderly, who always dream of returning to their house, even if it is partially destroyed. Some have managed to return and settle even in half-destroyed houses. Their dwellings are sometimes without doors, without windows, or without water and electricity. Still, for an old woman or for a child, one’s own home, even if it is poor and modest, is more beautiful and more comfortable than a royal palace.
In November 2013, a rocket hit the Apostolic Nunciature in Damascus. It was around 6:30 in the morning. Thank God, there were no victims, but only limited material damage. I immediately went down to the chapel to celebrate Holy Mass with the staff of the Nunciature and to thank the Lord for having escaped danger. I did so as long as there was still calm! After an hour there began an uninterrupted succession of phone calls and visits to express solidarity, starting with the highest office-holders of the State. There were phone calls from Syria and from outside. “How do you feel, what do you think?”, some journalists asked me. My answer was: “I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands of children and the elderly who have had their poor homes destroyed. That they had no phone call to express solidarity, no visit from the authorities, and no help for reconstruction”.
COLUMNS OF REFUGEES
“Take the child and his mother with you and escape into Egypt” (Mt 2:13). “A path of suffering and blood”. “Thread of suffering and bloodshed” (AL, 20).
The Family of Nazareth, which was persecuted and took refuge in Egypt, is the icon of many families in Syria and other parts of the world (AL, 65). About half of the Syrian population was forced to leave their homes, villages and neighbourhoods: more than 6 million internally displaced persons and 5.6 million refugees in neighbouring countries. Syrian refugees make up a quarter of all refugees in the world (Filippo Grandi, UNHCR). A mass exodus of impressive proportions, such as that of east Aleppo in December 2016, under the snow; that of the Eastern Ghouta in the past month of April, the impressive numbers of IDPs in Daraa province at the end of June, and those of Idleb province in these days. An unstoppable stream of human suffering. These scenes are taking place in various parts of the world, such as in Myanmar, South-Sudan, Venezuela and elsewhere.
Furthermore, as Pope Francis reminds us (AL, 46), forced migration of families, caused by situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice, and marked by the vicissitudes of a journey that often puts lives at risk, traumatizes people and destabilizes families.
“Some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2). “Social love, as a reflection of the Trinity” (AL, 324).
As happens in every war, there are people who try to profit and get rich even on the backs of poor people. How often do we witness exploitation of poor refugees: exorbitant rents, exploitation at work, etc. It is very sad to see all this. However, it is also comforting to see scenes of solidarity and altruism, often among the refugees themselves. As in the case of Antonio, who was wounded in military service and fled to a neighbouring country. He ended up at the mercy of a family that exploited him in every way. Finally, he managed to free himself and find refuge in a Syrian refugee camp. He was hidden and adopted by the Sunni Muslim families of the camp: “For us there is no difference in faith, a young person is a young person, everywhere. Antonio could be any of our children.”
Walid lives in a refugee camp with all his family. In Syria, he had a reasonable economic situation. He is the only one who owns a car, an old and battered one, which he makes available to anyone who needs it. He is always ready to accompany people to the hospital, without asking for anything in return, not even a contribution for the petrol. Day or night, people know they can count on him.
Mariam, whose husband was arrested 6 years ago, has two children with thalassemia, who need monthly blood transfusions. Mariam experienced the solidarity of many people in the camp willing to donate their blood to allow the children survive.
Some families, made up mainly of women and children, arrived from Syria without resources and were helped by other families in the refugee camp. Some helped to set up tents, others cleaned them, others shared their food and others donated mattresses so as avoid their having to sleep on the floor.
Fr. George, some time ago, told me: “I brought Holy Communion to the elderly Ms. Rita. She was housed, with her whole family, in the home of Ms. Fatima, a Muslim woman. Ms. Fatima told me: “I welcomed her as if she were my sister.”
“It is encouraging to see the many examples of solidarity and charity that emerge in times of war. There are so many individuals, so many charitable and non-governmental organizations both within and outside the Church, whose members spare no effort and fear no danger in their efforts to care for the wounded and ill, to bury the dead, to provide food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, and to visit prisoners. Indeed, the help given to victims of conflicts combines a number of works of mercy”. This is how Pope Francis addressed the participants at the Conference on International Humanitarian Law, Rome, 28 October 2017.
Pope Francis’ encouragement, based on a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb: 13:2), is equally beautiful and appropriate. He says : “When a family is welcoming and reaches out to others, especially the poor and the neglected, it is ‘a symbol, witness and participant in the Church’s motherhood’” (AL, 324).
Elsewhere he says: “Now I wish to turn my gaze to the living Christ, who is at the heart of so many love stories (AL, 59).
FLOWERS IN THE TORMENT
The massacre of the innocent (Mt : 2:16). “Rachel weeping for her children refusing be comforted” (Jr: 31:15)
Ever more tragically far away from the idyllic scene of Psalm 128.
The suffering of children is what is most striking in this atrocious Syrian conflict, which can be defined as a real massacre of innocents. Many died as a result of the bombings, some drowned in the sea, like little Aylan Kurdi, others were extracted, injured or dead, from under the rubble, like little Omrane Daqneesh, 5 years old, on 18 August 2016; others were torn apart by explosions, suffocated by toxic gases, cut by splinters, mutilated, traumatized, sexually abused or enrolled in the military.
On Holy Saturday 2014, I visited a Catholic hospital in Damascus, where there were about 60 children from the Catholic Armenian school. Some had their legs bandaged, others their arms, or other parts of their bodies, wounds caused by shrapnel from a rocket, which hit their school playground before 8 a.m. Laurine, aged 9, was assisted by her speechless parents. The nursing Sister told me that Laurine, that day, was particularly nervous. She had become aware of what had happened to her the previous day: both her legs had been amputated! She kept repeating: “O Lord, why has this happened to me?”. On 21 June 2014, in the populous region of Jaramana, Damascus, two brothers, Michael aged 4 and Anton aged 9, were leaning on the balcony of their modest apartment, waiting for their parents to go to a feast with some of their relatives. Shrapnel from a rocket fell on them. From their balcony they flew to Heaven!
On 4 April 2017, in the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun (Idleb), among the many victims as many as 30 children died of suffocation (OPCW-UN JIM, Report N. 7, 2017). Their panting breath seemed like that of Jesus on the cross. A few days later, on 15 April 2017, about 70 displaced children in Rachidine, near Aleppo, died as a result of a car explosion. They ran to that car to get some candy. Probably they have been victims of a revenge among rival armed groups.
For the hospital staff, the task is often stressful on the emotional level too. In the Eastern Ghouta, a six-year-old boy had a foot dissected following a bombing. Amputation was inevitable. The young nurse Ahmad, 25, collapsed when the child held his hand, without letting him go, and begged him: “Save my foot!, Save my foot !” “I left and I started crying. I did not know what to do. He broke my heart” (AFP - OLJ 9 February 2018).
“It is simply unacceptable that children continue being killed and injured every single day… Not hundreds, not thousands but millions more children in the Middle East and North Africa region have their childhood stolen, maimed for life, traumatized, arrested and detained, exploited, prevented from going to school; denied even the basic right to play… We collectively continue failing to stop the war on children!” (Statement by Geert Cappelaere, Unicef Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. Amman, 5 February 2018)
In this regard, Pope Francis referring recently to the children of the Middle East, said: “All too many children have spent most of their lives looking at rubble instead of schools, hearing the deafening explosion of bombs rather than the happy din of playgrounds… Only by wiping away their tears will the world recover its dignity” (Journey of Pope Francis to Bari, 7 July 2018).
I would like to quote, more or less at random, examples of children who have particularly moved me and who are signs of hope. As Pope Francis reminds us: “Hope has the face of children” (Journey of Pope Francis to Bari, 7 July 2018).
Omayra Sánchez Garzón, who died at the age of 13, on 16 November 1985, after being trapped for 3 days with no possibility of freeing her, in the ruins of her home in Armero (Colombia), during the Ruiz Volcano catastrophe. The water came up to her throat. The coffee flowers formed a kind of wreath on the water around her head. Her serenity was striking. In the evening, she asked the journalists to leave her in peace for a while, so that she could say her prayers! She moved the world!. Like so many children of the tsunami catastrophe.
In April 2016, I accompanied a Syrian Bishop to a hill village, for the First Communion ceremony. It was spring: the weather was mild, meadows were bedecked with flowers and the wind was caressing the olive trees. Boys and girls dressed in white: a joy for the family, for the parish, for everyone! After the ceremony, they ran, joyful and spontaneously, alongside the Bishop’s car for a stretch of the road. In the midst of the olive trees and the flowering meadows! Suddenly, they had to make way for a large military vehicle, which occupied a large part of the road. The Bishop and I were speechless on seeing that the heavy vehicle was loaded with ammunition: bombs, rockets, missiles ... The driver of the vehicle, who was burly and light-skinned, looked curiously at all the joyful children dressed in white. In this way, sadness and anxiety coexisted with joy, hope and life on the same road!
Family the nearest hospital (AL, 321)
Who can properly heal the various and deep traumas of many children in the world ? The children of Syria, Yemen, Nigeria…
The child soldiers of Syria under ISIS and the child soldiers of Sierra Leone and Liberia during the civil war in the 90’s, sometimes under the influence of drugs, committed all sorts of atrocities, even against their own peers. Later, they themselves were the victims of such atrocious crimes and ended up bearing the scars for life. Who will be able to wash and heal their consciences? Sometimes their own families refuse to receive them. A number of children, after suffering violence or having been witnesses of violence against their loved ones, harbour a thirst for revenge. One hears someone in tears say: “May your children perish, just as you caused my little brother to perish!”
It is in cases like this that we can best understand Pope Francis’ most appropriate observation: “The family has always been the nearest ‘hospital” (AL, 321). “Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous – even repeated – forgiveness” (AL, 86).
But how many families – “the nearest hospital” – have been hurt and destroyed in Syria and elsewhere! Who then can heal the hearts of these children and adolescents?
The Church like a field hospital (AL, 291)
Let us not forget that the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital, emphasises Pope Francis (AL, 291).
In Syria, the Church, together with other benevolent humanitarian Organizations, is called to be a “field hospital”, carrying out corporal and spiritual works of mercy across the board.
After the battle in East Aleppo in December 2016, some thousands of abandoned, stray and orphaned children appeared. Prejudices are often expressed against them: “They are children of jihadists!”. For this reason, they are left on the side-lines. After my visit to Aleppo in January 2017, a priest phoned me to say that in one of the many buildings destroyed by the bombing, four of these children were found dead as a result of cold and hunger. A few days earlier, they had even been robbed of the food assistance they had received.
With the good will of some Catholic charitable institutions, and together with the Muslim religious authorities, since these are generally Muslim children, a praiseworthy initiative called “A name and a future” has been launched. First of all, these children have to be given a name, because they are not registered in the registry office. They also need adequate education assistance, and efforts are being made to bring about “family reunifications”, where possible. Some families were willing to welcome some of these children. How many street children, often traumatised by sexual violence and rape, do not know what it means to have a mother!
STABAT MATER DOLOROSA (Jn 19:25)
Look and see: is any sorrow like the sorrow inflicted on me ?” (Lam, 1 : 12)
The serenity with which some people, mothers above all, have been able to overcome painful trials is deeply impressive. I have met some of them personally : mothers who lost their children, who had their son beheaded, who are waiting anxiously to know the fate of their missing loved ones.
Their faith, serenity and courage remind us of the biblical passage: “I called upon your name, O Lord, from the deep pit” (Lm 3:55). “ You were near when I called you. You said: ‘Do not be afraid!’” (Lm 3:57).
I also experienced the pain of some mothers of foreign fighters who died in Syria. You cannot imagine the turmoil and torment in their soul! Is not the Church a field hospital for them too?
Every time I enter the Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, I pray for some time in front of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pietà. It seems to me to represent the pain of so many mothers. In the “Pietà” I see all of Syria transfigured, holding on her knees her dead and wounded children: half a million dead; one and half a million wounded !
How many women, many of them widows, despite enormous difficulties, provide for their families, with love and great sacrifice! They strive with endurance to protect and keep alive the flame of life !
In all these cases it is natural to think of the “next door” holiness about which Pope Francis speaks in the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (n. 7),with the signs of its presence to which the Spirit gives rise, even outside the Catholic Church and in very different environments (n. 9).
How many families, how many women, how many children deserve recognition, even an international award! However, they are too many! Moreover, these are unknown people, they are too poor, they do not know how to speak, they do not have the required documents. None of them will ever be invited to give a lecture. Even the meshes of the network of humanitarian corridors, which are very praiseworthy, are too large for them: they are too small fish, destined to remain at the bottom of the sea, with their feet in the mud during the winter, or in the burning sand during the summer.
“The rains are over and gone ... flowers are appearing on the earth” (Sg 2:11-12)
“Come then, my beloved, my lovely one, come.
For see, winter is past, the rains are over and gone.
Flowers are appearing on the earth.
The season of glad songs has come,
The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The fig tree is forming its first figs
and the blossoming vines give out their fragrance.
…Return, my beloved,
over the mountains of the aromas”.
(Sg 2:10-13, 17).
The journey of God’s marvellous covenant with humanity, which is signified in marriage, continues, although sometimes it is a path of suffering and bloodshed ( AL, 20). It will also continue in Syria, and other sorely tested parts of the world, after the suffering, after the rain of rockets and the deluge of fire.
The Damascus rose!
“Flowers are appearing”. In literature, the Damascus rose is famous: it is blood red in colour, has many petals and is very fragrant.
This evening, together with all of you, from the bottom of our hearts, we would like to send a “Damascus rose” to all the suffering families, children and women of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Venezuela, and all the continents I mentioned!
Dublin, 24 August 2018
Cardinal Mario Zenari
Apostolic Nuncio in Syria