VATICAN CITY — “The children are paying the highest price of the conflict,” says Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, of the six-year civil war.
In an exclusive interview with the Register May 18, he spoke to Deborah Castellano Lubov about the dire situation in Syria, where more than 11 million residents have either been internally displaced or forced out of the country as refugees as a result of the continuing conflict.
In the wide-ranging interview, the prelate — who was created a cardinal at a November 2016 consistory by Pope Francis partly as a sign of the Holy Father’s love and concern for the beleaguered nation — also stressed how the young people who are leaving in great numbers “leaves an emptiness” in the country and underscored that “a society and a Church without young people is a society without a future.”
He also acknowledged that “the departure of Christians is an impoverishment for all of Syria.”
The war in Syria has been dragging on now for six years, without winners or losers. A politically negotiated solution at this point seems to be the only one that could put an end to the conflict. But is it reasonable to hope that this solution could be realized soon?
The political solution of the conflict — that is the only reasonable solution — seems, unfortunately, to be still rather far away. The conflict happened to worsen and get more complicated year by year. It began with peaceful manifestations demanding political reform. After the repression, the protest transformed itself into armed opposition.
As a result, because of the strong geopolitical international and regional interests, the conflict became, more than anything else, a war for procurement. Now, with the military intervention of more nations, it is considered an armed international conflict. And to make things even more complicated, the so-called Islamic State appeared in 2014.
What are the necessary conditions in order to “silence” the weapons?
“War has its own rules,” the former general secretary of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, repeated many times. The international community must respect humanitarian international rights. Unfortunately, in these past six years of war, various red lines were passed over many times, in complete impunity: attacks with chemical weapons; hospitals, schools, popular markets and refugee camps all hit; the “arm” of hunger, with sieges of whole villages and neighborhoods, and the “arm” of thirst (Damascus went waterless for weeks and Aleppo for months). The civilian population, in particular: The children are paying the highest price of the conflict.
The international community must multiply the efforts to make the cease-fire adopted and observed, so as to permit access to humanitarian aid.
Despite many failures, an unexpected success must be remembered: The agreement for the dismantling of the chemical arsenal happened in September of 2013. What would Syria have been today, if all that chemical arsenal had remained still in Syria, if a part of it had finished [ended up] in the hands of terrorists?
But it was possible to reach this agreement — that was something incredible, for the rapidity and the surprise with which it happened — thanks to the agreement between Russia and the United States.
We must, however, keep in mind that these facts happened before the crisis between Crimea and Ukraine: this crisis that had partially compromised the relationship between the United States and Russia. Finally, that agreement could be reached thanks, also, to the pressure of international public opinion.
In particular, the strong appeal of Pope Francis contributed very much in these days, with the initiative of the day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and in the world, in St. Peter’s Square, on Sept. 7, 2013.
Another significant fact to not underestimate has been the adoption of 2254 Resolution (2015) of the U.N. Security Council that revives the statement of Geneva, adopted unanimously by all the counterparts on June 30, 2012. That resolution, despite the persistence of strong differences between interpretations of different points, remains always as a valid basis in the negotiations of Geneva.
But most importantly for keeping the arms silent is the fundamental solution of the strong rivalries and disagreements on a regional level. They always existed, but they had exacerbated recently, and they are at the roots of the current problems in Iraq and Yemen.
If the countries of the region don’t resolve these rivalries and disagreements, that will have an impact on some countries of the Middle East, and it is difficult to hope for a solid and lasting peace.
Syria was a country where there was a relatively peaceful cohabitation between the different religious communities, including Christian minorities. Can Christian people hope that Syria will come back to that situation, even with a new political leadership?
It is necessary to arrive, in these majority-Muslim countries, at the “state of right,” where everyone, independently from his religious affiliation, enjoys equal rights and has the same duties. It would be necessary to arrive at a “positive secularism,” to the separation and distinction, namely, between religion and state. Otherwise, the citizens who do not belong to the majority religion risk feeling and being treated as second-class citizens. And the new constitution will have to guarantee the rights of minorities.
In the meantime, during the war between Iraq and Syria, we have observed the insurgency of the Islamic State, which in this moment is withdrawing on military grounds. But is there the risk that their ideology will condition heavily, going forward, the future of the Syria?
Terrorism must be fought especially by trying to eliminate its deep causes, which are at the roots of its insurgence. We must recover the ground on which it was born and it prospers.
In order to do this, it is necessary to have an adequate and shared political solution to the Syrian conflict. In Syria, there is a moderate Islam. The people reject the atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State.
The war has caused an exodus of refugees abroad and added to major destruction in the country. In such a tragic scenario, what future awaits Syria, from an economic and social perspective?
The exodus of Syrians has exceeded 5 million. The internally displaced people are 6.3 million. The emigrants in Europe are about 1 million. In general, those who emigrate are young and well-educated people.
The emptiness left by them in Syria will provoke grave consequences. It’s enough to think of all the doctors and technicians that emigrated. A society and a Church without young people is a society and a Church without a future.
The fact that makes an enormous impression is the destruction of whole neighborhoods and villages. But even more numerous and serious are the damages that at first you don’t see. In Syria, even the person and social cohabitation are destroyed. When the war will be finished, the palaces and the infrastructures will be rebuilt, with the help of the international community. But who will be able to heal the deep wounds caused in the hearts, to eradicate the hate? And how much time will it take? I think of the many children who have seen violence and cruelty of all types.
And with regard to Christians, isn’t there the risk that the small Syrian Christian community (including the Catholics) could potentially disappear?
Before the conflict, the percentage of Christians in Syria was about 5%-6%. Now, it has fallen to about half; in Aleppo to about two-thirds. The tragedy of these ancient apostolic Churches (in Syria there are five Oriental Catholic Churches sui iures, plus the Latin rite), with their own liturgical, spiritual and disciplinary heritage, is the fact that, once emigrated, into various parts of the world, these Christians risk losing — little by little — their bond with the Church of their rite.
Many will visit the Church of the Latin rite, and the second and third generations will have trouble recognizing the Church to which their own parents and grandparents had belonged.
It is difficult to judge the choice of who emigrates, especially those who find themselves under the pressure of bombs and see no future.
Everyone must respond in conscience, in front of God, to their own family, to themselves and to their own country. Certainly, the departure of Christians is an impoverishment for all the nation. With their universalistic spirit, Christians are like a window open to the world for their country. And the contribution given by Christians to Syria’s development, especially in the Arabic Renaissance period, in the fields of art and literature, but also — up to some decades ago — in political fields is known. Let’s think of Prime Minister Faris Al-Koury, a Protestant Christian (1944-45; 1954-55), or the main founder of the Baas party, Michel Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian.
To help Christians remain, it is necessary to support them economically (with homes, work, safety, etc.) But they need also a spiritual support, to better understand and implement their mission in Syria; namely, to be the “salt of the earth” in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. ... After all, to be born in a majority-Muslim country is not bad luck — it is a mission, an evangelical and civic duty. But a big help to stay or to return would be to adopt a “state of right,” where all can have the same rights and duties.
According to the customs of consistories, it is rare to find an apostolic nuncio among the new cardinals. How do you welcome the choice of Pope Francis to name you as a cardinal? What did you read into this choice? And what has changed in your approach to a context as difficult as Syria?
It has hit me totally by surprise. In the modern history of apostolic nunciatures, this seems to be the only case of a nuncio-cardinal. Giving the announcement, on Oct. 9, 2016, Pope Francis said: “His Excellency, Msgr. Mario Zenari, who remains apostolic nuncio in the beloved and martyred Syria.” After some moments of surprise and almost disbelief, I thought, and I said: “It is an a act of particular predilection of Pope Francis for the ‘beloved and martyred Syria.’’
The rosso porpora goes to Syria, tout court, so to innocent blood paid, especially of children. I returned in Syria with the red scullcap, the purple-colored cardinal cap. And it has been for me a big consolation, to be accepted enthusiastically by everyone: Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and Muslims — basically, from all the Syrians, independently from what [faith] they belong to. They have all accepted me as their cardinal: the cardinal of Syria.
Needless to say, it has been a surprise also for the civil authorities, to know that, among the 182 countries maintaining diplomatic relations with the Holy See, only Syria has a nuncio-cardinal. It has been an extraordinarily eloquent gesture of Pope Francis, very appreciated by all the Syrians. Obviously, it requires on my behalf a commitment still greater, noblesse oblige. Now, more then ever, I feel I must do all that is possible as the nuncio of all Syrians.
Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.