Conflict in Iraq, Syria and Gaza has led to the greatest humanitarian crisis the world has faced since the Second World War, the head of the Catholic Church’s relief and development work said. Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, president of the Caritas Internationalis federation of Catholic charities, was speaking in Rome on Monday at a meeting of clerics and aid experts to discuss the crises in the Middle East. He cited the 13 million Syrians in desperate need, 3 million as refugees outside their country; the more than 1.3 million Iraqis forced from their homes since the start of the year; and the 10,000 homes in Gaza that were destroyed in this summer's bombing. “As part of the humanitarian community, we are confronted with the greatest crisis the world has faced since the Second World War,” he said. Read his full speech below.
Dear archbishops and bishops, dear members of the Caritas confederation, my dear brothers and sisters, I greet you very warmly.
We meet in tragic times.
Every minute, four children inside Syria are forced to flee their homes.
Extremists in Iraq and eastern Syria are carrying out widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the large areas under their control.
In Gaza, about half a million children were unable to return to school because their classrooms were either destroyed or they house refugees. And large tracks of the best lands are being confiscated by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
As part of the humanitarian community, we are confronted with the greatest crisis the world has faced since the Second World War.
And in a terrible echo of that war, in Mosul in Iraq, the Arabic letter for “n,” the first letter in the word “Nazarene”, was painted on doors to identify the homes of Christians who were then beaten or executed.
How do we confront such evil?
The West seeks to build a military alliance and send more bomber planes and drones to Syria and Iraq.
But further violence is never the answer. It will just lead to more ‘senseless slaughter’ in the words of Pope Benedict XV, describing the 1914-1918 Great War.
As we mark the centenary of that conflict, we also recall that Pope Benedict XV said at the time: “Force can repress the body, but it cannot repress the souls of men”.
Pope Francis said last week, “War is never a necessity, nor is it inevitable. Another way can always be found: the way of dialogue, encounter and the sincere search for truth.”
That is why we have come together. To find the other way. And we have on our side tools more powerful than any weapons.
In a message to Arabic speaking pilgrims at the General Audience last Wednesday, Pope Francis said, “The Church faces hatred with love, defeats violence with forgiveness; responds to weapons with prayer.”
For the Caritas confederation our first task is a humanitarian one. The challenge is staggering.
There are 13 million Syrians in desperate need, 3 million as refugees outside their country.
Caritas Syria, Caritas Lebanon, Caritas Jordan and Caritas Turkey have been supported by the confederation to provide food, shelter, protection, schooling, health and counseling to over 900,000 Syrians since the conflict began.
When Caritas Internationalis held its Representative Council meeting in Amman, Jordan in May, we had the opportunity to speak with Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
I was struck both with their desire to go back home or to a third country and a great appreciation for the work of Caritas.
In Gaza, an estimated 10,000 homes were destroyed this summer, along with 70 percent of factories and the main power plant. Caritas Jerusalem staff worked throughout the bombardment, providing food and health care to those in need.
Over 1.3 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes since the start of the year. They are often living out in the open, under trees or bridges. Caritas Iraq staff themselves were forced to flee, but they still have continued to provide aid to those in need.
Confronting crises on these fronts, one aim of our meeting this week is how to support national Caritas organisations and the local Church to provide ongoing care everywhere it is needed.
As needs grow and resources shrink, we must coordinate better to ensure we help as many people as we are able. We must reach out to our Church members and partners to build alliances of good will.
We must also challenge the shortfalls in funding. Less than half of $7.7 billion worth of humanitarian appeals by the international community for the Syria crisis alone have been met. We must urge governments, in particular those who are fueling the wars or letting them develop, to stop their actions and to do more to ensure they support aid programmes.
Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and other neighboring countries cannot be left to deal with the Syria and Iraq crises alone. And that also means other countries accept their fair share of refugees.
But that is not sufficient, humanitarian aid cannot solve the problems. We must engage with advocacy for peace.
Conflicts in the Middle East are being fuelled by the guns, bombs and bullets that continue to flow into the region.
Countries, including those on the UN Security Council, are providing arms and ammunition and entertaining the wars and their consequences. Many of those shrinking from their responsibilities to provide humanitarian aid are among those providing the greatest number of arms. It seems there is not enough money for both, and political agendas come first before people.
Governments must agree to a total cessation of arms transfers to the Middle East countries engulfed by conflict.
The Israeli blockade of Gaza is inhuman. It must end to allow Gazans to protect their lives and livelihoods and so they can live a dignified life.
The whole question of Palestine must at last be solved in justice. Israeli occupation must come to an end, and a manageable state of Palestine be recognised by Israel and the international community on the officially recognized borders of 1967.
His Beatitude Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, President of the Catholic Bishops Assembly in Iraq, speaks of the ‘extinction’ of Christians and Yezidis from lands they have lived in for millennia.
The exodus of Christians from the Middle East and the collapse of pluralist societies is a great concern. It has huge consequences for the communities themselves, for their societies, for the whole world itself, but also for the future of the work of Caritas. Confronting this reality must be key to our meeting.
Peace in the Middle East must be based on justice for all peoples. It must not be imposed from outside, but achieved from within. We need inclusive regional talks.
“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” said Pope Francis to his guests – the Israeli and Palestinian Presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas – as he welcomed them to his home in June for an Invocation for Peace in the Holy Land.
As Pope Francis is inviting us to, let us reflect on how we can engage in an ongoing worldwide prayer for peace.
Join me in praying for courage and ideas for the best response, now and in the future, that our meeting will be fruitful and that we will one day witness a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.