» 03/16/2012 23:50 VATICAN – SYRIA Vatican Nunzio: For the Church in Syria it is time to go on the offensive and not stand and watch by Bernardo Cervellera In an interview with AsiaNews, Mgr. Mario Zenari, for the past three years nunzio in Damascus, described all the elements that make up the tangled skein of Syria. The deep division between Sunnis and Alawites (Shiites) and the growing hatred. The too fearful Christians must commit themselves to building a society where there is respect for man and his rights, equality for women, equality among all citizens, freedom of religion and of conscience. Being in Syria is a mission. At Homs a priest talks with the rebels and with the army to provide aid to the poor, to save the lives of the inhabitants, to bury the dead that nobody wants to touch. In a year of violence at least 800-900 children have been killed. The majority were shot in the streets by unknown snipers. Syria is changing and there’s no turning back.
Damascus (AsiaNews) – “This is the Christians’ hour”; there has begun “a new historical process in Syria” from which it will never turn back and “Christians cannot miss this rendezvous with history”: Msgr. Mario Zenari, for three years now the Vatican nuncio in Damascus, speaks almost excitedly as he recalls the Christians’ missionary efforts of Christians, which is to be “like sheep among wolves”, but with an identity and a task. Precisely because in Syria the gap between the different components of society is widening more and more, he sees an urgent need for Christians to come out into society and build bridges of reconciliation, defending the values typical of the Church’s social doctrine: human dignity, rejection of violence, equality between men and women, fundamental freedoms, freedom of conscience and religion, the separation between religion and state. “It is urgent”, he said, “to go out into the open, on the attack, and not to sit back and watch.” Mgr. Zenari, 66, tells stories of ordinary heroism of some priests who have remained in Homs during this months’ bombing and violence. While sharing in the mourning for the tragedy of the Belgian children killed in a car accident in Switzerland, he reminds us that in Syria 800-900 children have already been killed, mostly shot “in the head and the heart” by strangers: “Their murder is an atrocity” and it is necessary that the international community ensure “justice for these children.” Here is the full interview which Mgr. Zenari gave via telephone to AsiaNews.
Your Excellency, what is it like is to be in Syria at this moment?
My heart is sad. This is the fourth spring that I’ve lived in Damascus and this year I still haven’t seen spring arrive. They’re expecting the fruits of Kofi Annan’s mission, but there are fears that the parties will say “Yes, but …”, where the “but” is more important than the “yes”. Instead it is urgent that both parties make a tremendous effort. The distances between them have become huge and are widening every day. For this reason it’s necessary for both parties to jump through hoops to rebuild the dialogue. A reversal is necessary, a conversion… The climate is so deteriorated that a fair amount of heroism is needed, perhaps a bit more from one particular side. Hopefully the help of the international community will bear fruit, so it will make them make great gestures, but it’s a bit difficult.
Before, the international community accused only the regular army. Now Annan has called for an end to the violence from both sides; Britain hopes for a peaceful solution; France is doubtful about sending weapons to the rebels…
Yes, this is true. The request has to come from 360 degrees, from all sides. Maybe at the beginning the media exaggerated about only one of the sides. But both parties are called upon to make gestures of goodwill and put an end to violence. At first, perhaps driven by enthusiasm for the Arab spring in other regions, the riots were seen in a very idealistic manner; and then going forward, we saw many other aspects come into play. To date, Syria is a tangled skein, and there are many elements to watch.
Could you list these elements?
Initially there were demonstrations for more democracy, more respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, with peaceful demonstrations that were suppressed. But then so many factors were added: first, the fact that 75% of the society here is composed of Sunnis; then, that it is governed by 12% of the population who are the Alawites. This tension between Sunnis and Alawites today is decisive, without forgetting the other aspects. History will assess how the relationship between Sunnis and Shiites has gone (the Alawites are somehow linked to the Shiite world).
There is also an attempt to internationalize the conflict.
We are neighbors with Iraq, with Israel, with Lebanon; and we’re not far from Iran… and so in Syria ingredients come in from all sides and complicate the mess.
There is a risk that the international community use Syria as a chessboard for its interests: the West, Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Iran; Israel against Hezbollah; Turkey against Syria … But the needs of the Syrian people are forgotten.
There are various readings. There is the simplistic one of the regime which claims that a foreign conspiracy is present. It’s impossible to evaluate fully how much is true and how much is propaganda.
The Syrian Christians, 10% of the population, seem caught in the crossfire.
For me there is a place for Christians and they cannot afford to miss this appointment with this new historical process. There is no doubt that Syria is changing: a new process has begun and there’s no going back. Where should the Christians place themselves? I would answer based on the Psalms, a wisdom that is at least 2500 years old. And one Psalm says: Do not lean on a falling wall [Ps 61 (62), 4]. And neither should a man stand by, gazing out the window. Christians are in society and must roll up their sleeves. In the past there have been faithful who have made a glorious contribution in the field of culture, art, politics: one of the founders of the Baath Party was a Christian. Woe, therefore, if they miss this appointment. What’s more, Christians start off with an advantage. The Pope, a few months ago, at the Syrian ambassador’s presentation of credentials [June 9, 2011], pointed out that there are exemplary relations between Christians and Muslims. The Christians in Syria also have a good elite: cultural figures, academics, lawyers, presidents of hospitals… It’s time to live out our task and make our contribution, reclaiming our dignity and our identity, based on the Gospel and the social doctrine of the Church: human dignity, rejection of violence, equality between men and women, fundamental freedoms, freedom of conscience and religion, the separation between religion and state, etc… It is urgent to go out in the open, on the attack, and not to sit back and watch.
Three years ago I presented my credentials to President Assad. And I was impressed that for following 15 minutes during the personal interview, the president continued to speak of the importance that Christians have for Syrian society. He truly admired the Christian components in the country. In this phase of transformation, one cannot look back and think about some protection from the outside: we must work for a rule of law, in which all citizens are equal, have the same rights and duties.
Another thing I noticed is that at every level Christians serve as a bridge. In many mixed villages, Alawites and Christians live in peace, Sunnis and Christians the same, Druze and Christians live in harmony… In these times, with the conflict, sometimes there has been friction and confrontation, but until now, no church has ever suffered even a scratch. In any case, we Christians can have a function of reconciliation among all the groups living in the country. The idea is going around that the fate of Christians in Syria is likely to be similar to what happened in Iraq. But Syria is not Iraq, and it’s not even Egypt: it has its own characteristics, with a tradition of good tolerance.
The Gospel tells us: I send you out as sheep among wolves. And the wolves are not only in Damascus but also in Frankfurt, New York, London, Paris …. only somewhat more subtle and refined. Being in the midst of wolves is part of our mission and we need not fear. The Gospel also says: “Do not be afraid.”
I have continually before my eyes outstanding examples of this mission. In these days Homs is hell. Everyday I phone three priests who have remained there. As we speak, we hear gunfire because the Christian quarter is between in the crossfire. One of them is remarkable for what he is able to do: he talks to the rebels to halt the violence, asking them permission to let pass the trucks with food aid for the poor. On the other hand, from the other side, he asks the army not to shoot, in order not to hit the neighborhoods where there are still inhabitants, or sacred buildings. And he serves as a bridge, like a sheep among wolves. Several days ago there were the bodies of three soldiers in front of the cathedral. They had been there for 10 days. No one dared to recover them because there was the risk of being killed. So he went to the rebels and asked for clemency for these bodies. The rebels at first were angry, shouting: “What do we care for these pigs?” But he said: “No, after we are dead we are not pigs, we are all equal.” And he managed to get them to listen: they loaded the bodies onto a truck and dumped them onto a piece of road where it was easier for their fellow soldiers to recover them.
The Church can do a lot, on a practical, charitable level, and with our choices, focusing on the defense of the human person, above party lines. We must give attention to the hungry, the wounded, the dead… So many people have been killed and no one knows by whom. We must go out, denounce, give our testimony in favor of the human person.
These days the world has been impressed by the tragedy of that bus that crashed in a tunnel in Switzerland. 22 Belgian children died and the emotion that it aroused is understandable. Here in Syria, until 2 weeks ago, according to the UN there have been 7500 killed, but now we are up to 9500. Of these, at least 500 are children! This means that out of every 15 deaths, one was a child. Some of them died crushed by the rubble caused by bombs, but the majority died in the street and not because they stumbled or fell, no: they were shot in the heart or the head with bullets. I hope that the international community can do something to ensure justice for these children. It is good and fitting to be moved over 22 children, but here there are 800-900 who have died. It is urgent to denounce these crimes. Human life is sacred, that of those who wear the military uniform, like that of the rebels, but even more so that of children. Their murder is an atrocity.
The road Syria is on is long, difficult and painful, like that of a river: it may deviate, go right or left, but it reaches the sea. The Synod for the Middle East prompted the bishops and the faithful to witness to the faith and work together to build the city of man along with the others. The Church must speak its position, meet, comfort, clean up these disfigured faces. Being in this country is a mission.
What can we Catholics do in the rest of the world? The Custody of the Holy Land, for example, has launched a campaign to help the Christians of Syria…
We must begin by thanking you for your generosity and solidarity, which is much needed. I hope that with Caritas and other institutions we can alleviate all the suffering in the country. It is also necessary try to understand the situation of the Christians. It’s one thing is to reason at a table, and another thing to get carried away by sentiment. We must understand even the feelings and listen.
What worries me most is the growing hatred in society. For now it isn’t manifest, but it’s burning. The bullets that the two groups are exchanging are only the tip of the iceberg. We are walking on embers that can ignite at any time. For our part, we Christians witness to charity. It’s the Christians’ moment, we must act and go on the offensive in defense of the human person: it is important not to miss this historic moment.