For the first time since the Government of President Bashar al-Assad, with Russian military backing, reclaimed eastern Aleppo from opposition and Islamist rebels, the Vatican this week sent a delegation to visit Syria’s second city.
From 18 to 23 January, “on behalf of the Holy Father, Mgr Giampietro Dal Toso, secretary delegate of the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development, visited Aleppo, along with Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio in Syria, and nunciature advisor Mgr Thomas Habib”, a Vatican statement said.
Zenari was made a cardinal in the consistory of November last year, after representing the Holy See as nuncio to Syria since 2008. He remained throughout the civil war, that started in 2011. Asked in 2014 how he was able to cope with the job, he said: “How could a representative of the pope flee the place where they need him most?… For me this mission is a privilege given to me by God, and it’s a very touching experience on the human level.”
When announcing he would make him a cardinal, Francis referred to Zenari as his envoy to “beloved and martyred Syria.”
Last September, Zenari referred to the moment in September 2013 when President Barack Obama put the bombing of Syria “on hold”, after many believed Assad had “crossed his red line” when chemical weapons were used in the conflict. “I already witnessed a miracle three years ago, when an American intervention against Assad over the issue of chemical weapons was headed off at the last minute. I don’t see why we couldn’t have another miracle today,” he said, saying he was still hopeful about Syria’s prospects.
The delegation this week was able to meet the Christian communities and their pastors, who “expressed their gratitude to the Pope for his constant attention to beloved Syria”, according to the statement. They also visited Catholic charitable institutions and a number of refugee camps. A centre for humanitarian assistance managed by Caritas Aleppo in the formerly rebel-held Hanano neighbourhood of eastern Aleppo was inaugurated. Hanano fell to the Government in November last year.
During their mission the cardinal participated in a moment of ecumenical prayer organised on the occasion of the week for Christian unity, and the condition of several Catholic hospitals was evaluated “in the light of a future project for their reconstruction and resumption of activity”.
There were also meetings with Muslim representatives, during which “emphasis was placed on the responsibility of religions to promote peace and reconciliation”.
During the visit both civil and religious authorities expressed their appreciation of the fact that Francis had elevated his representative to the dignity of cardinal.
PICTURE - A view from the Citadel in the Ancient City of Aleppo showing some of the devastation wrought by the constant bombing raids of the last few years