"Every effort - small or large - made to foster the peace process, is like putting a brick in the construction of a just society, which is open to welcome, and where everyone can find a place to dwell in peace." In a video message, Pope Francis encouraged participants in the meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Iraq, promoted by the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development.
The meeting, which took place in the afternoon of 10 December in online mode (via Zoom), in line with the health recommendations for the Covid-19 pandemic, was attended by around 50 Catholic charities, representatives of local episcopates and ecclesial institutions and religious congregations working in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries, as well as apostolic nuncios in the area.
The fourth meeting of the Catholic agencies was opened by Monsignor Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, who read out the speech of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, who was unable to attend in person.
In his introductory speech, Cardinal Pietro Parolin acknowledged that the general picture in the region is "characterised by the economic crisis, aggravated by political deadlock or even institutional crisis and, more recently, by the Covid-19 pandemic". Faced with this "absolutely serious" situation, which "gives rise to serious concern", the cardinal encourages everyone to continue "the projects in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey", but calls for a special commitment in Syria and Lebanon. The Secretary of State's reflections focused on Syria, which has been ravaged by conflict for almost ten years. Today more than ever," he insists, "we must not turn our attention away from the needs of the population, we must renew our charitable commitment as a Church alongside the most fragile and needy, also by promoting innovative actions, without forgetting the training of our workers, both professional and spiritual". But so is Lebanon, "hit by the collapse of the financial system, the socio-economic crisis and the explosion of the Port of Beirut", where there is an urgent need for "a strong commitment not only to reconstruction but also to support Catholic schools and hospitals, two cornerstones of the Christian presence in the country and throughout the region".
The four sessions of the meeting - political and diplomatic situation; the Church in Syria and Iraq; the issue of return and migrants and displaced persons; and Catholic agencies: from emergency to development - were punctuated by speeches and debates.
The first one was opened by Mgr. Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States, who outlined a summary of the socio-political situation in the Middle East, with particular regard to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Faced with the "tensions and conflicts" in the region, the prelate hoped that the "recent Abrahamic agreements" could foster "greater stability" and that the various challenges on the ground, "from humanitarian to political", would be "addressed with sincerity and courage". Every time dioceses, parishes, associations, volunteers or individuals work to support those who are abandoned or in need," concluded Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, assuring the Holy See's constant commitment to peace, "the Gospel acquires new strength of attraction". In this context, Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio in Syria, once again offered his personal testimony on the human and material consequences of the crisis in the country, a drama that, according to United Nations sources, still sees 11 million people in need of assistance.
The situation of the Christian communities living in the countries affected by the war was the focus of the speech by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. Faced with the "wound" of emigration, which affects young people in particular, the cardinal hoped that everything possible would be done to avoid a "monochrome Middle East that would not reflect its rich human and historical reality at all". In this vast region there are men and women who wish to "return to their own land" in order to "build their dreams anew", also by seizing the possible opportunities of the current crises. "Christians are called, like all citizens," Cardinal Leonardo Sandri added, "to contribute to the birth of a new Syria, a new Iraq according to their own identity enunciated in the principles of non-violence, dialogue, respect for human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms, pluralism, democracy, citizenship, rule of law, separation of religion and state". The topic of migrants and displaced persons was focused on by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi.
Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and the Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, Aloysius John, closed the meeting by reflecting on the role of Catholic agencies and how they can promote the transition from emergency to integral development. The cardinal stressed that "it is necessary to give people a sign of concrete hope, so that they can return to their countries and live in safety". The secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, for his part, described the material aid that the organisation offers "to support, accompany and defend" the "innocent victims" of conflicts, especially the "enormous number of Christian minorities who are the most vulnerable". A commitment that is not limited to a simple response to emergencies, but is also an accompaniment towards the future, towards autonomy and a dignified life. Caritas Internationalis put forward three proposals: the immediate lifting of sanctions to alleviate the suffering of the local population and allow humanitarian organisations to respond to the urgent needs linked to the approach of winter and the Covid-19 pandemic; an increase in financial resources to be allocated to aid programmes to rebuild the social fabric and meet the needs of local communities; and greater support for programmes by civil society organisations aimed at providing humanitarian aid and promoting rehabilitation and development.