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Why is Syria close to Pope Francis’ heart?

The pontiff has urged all actors in the war to bury the hatchet to find a lasting solution

Why is Syria close to Pope Francis’ heart?

People mourn the body of a child during a funeral in the village of Atareb in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo on March 21, for civilians killed in regime artillery fire on a hospital. (Photo: AFP)

Once a seat of Christianity, Syria today is bleeding with no end in sight. No wonder Pope Francis carries this ancient strife-torn country in his heart to herald a new era.

But the financial resources to rebuild the conflict-ridden nation have dried up. Ten years after the Syrian conflict, one million refugee children have been born in exile while at least five foreign armies and mercenaries are active in the country of 22 million to advance their expansionist interests.

The direct involvement of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran – who together account for the lion’s share of the world’s defence budget – in the sectarian violence to capture the ancient country has resulted in a war-like catastrophe which is rare in a civil war.

War or civil war?

What started as a peaceful protest against the hereditary rule of Bashar al-Assad on March 15, 2011, soon plunged the country into civil war. Rebel groups sprung up in the nooks and corners of the country and it seemed they were on a winning streak against the Syrian government.

Foreign governments like the US, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies and Turkey took sides and were generous in sending money, muscle power and weapons to their respective sympathizers. Sensing defeat, Bashar roped in Russia and Iran to his side and the battle lines were drawn. At one point, a third world war seemed an inevitable conclusion.

Catching them off guard, jihadist outfits jumped into the fray from nowhere to advance their interest. 

When the Islamic State (IS) was formed with Raqqa in northern Syria as its capital in 2014, the theater of war in Syria turned absurd. It became a free-for-all, and chaos reigned supreme and violence knew no bounds.

The atrocities committed by the Caliphate added salt to the wounds of Syrians who were caught between the rebels, upholding democracy, and government forces, standing for stability.

Deaths and causalities soared as each player took their turn to outmaneuver the other. The number of people who perished in the war reached 387,118 by December 2020. The toll excludes 205,300 people who are reported to be missing or presumed dead. According to UNICEF, more than 12,000 children have either been killed or wounded. More than half of Syria's pre-war population of 22 million have fled their homes. Some 6.7 million are internally displaced.

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A so-called civil war, with the tacit support of world superpowers and wealthy nations, simply wreaked havoc on innocent people and created mayhem.

Current situation

Though government forces have regained control of Syria's major cities, large parts of the country are still in the hands of opposition rebels, remnants of IS and Kurdish-led splinter groups. The country has been reduced to city-states, baying for each other’s blood.

The last remaining opposition stronghold is in the northwestern province of Idlib and adjoining parts of northern Hama and western Aleppo provinces.

The social fabric of the country known for its exemplary mosaic coexistence between ethnic and religious groups has collapsed.

Nature and its vital elements like the air, water and soil are polluted due to the frequent use of explosives and devices of various kinds for a period of 10 years by superpowers known for their massive firepower.

People have fallen on hard times with about 90 percent of the population currently living below the poverty line, one of the worst in the world.

The Syrian lira has lost value and consumer goods have become dearer. “People call this phase of the conflict ‘economic war’,” according to Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus, Cardinal Mario Zenari.

Winners and losers

As stakes are high for everyone, no one is conceding defeat. Nine rounds of UN-brokered peace talks – known as the Geneva II – failed to produce any results, with President Assad apparently refusing to hold talks with opposition groups who insist he step down as a precondition to coming to the negotiation table.

Russia, Iran and Turkey initiated parallel talks known as the Astana process in 2017. But their proposals are now gathering dust and none want to lose their grip on the country.

Pope Francis, who has been carrying war-hit Syria in his heart from the beginning of his pontificate in 2013, was categorically clear when he talked about winners and losers in the Syrian conflict during the Inter-religious Meeting in the Plain of Ur, in Iraq – the land of Abraham – on March 6. "Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity,” he said.

The pontiff was urging all actors in the war to bury the hatchet to find a lasting solution.

While Christians made up 30 percent of the population in the 1920s, today they are a mere 10 percent of the population. The majority of Christians belong to the Eastern rite and the largest and oldest is the Greek Orthodox Church.

Among the churches in communion with Rome, the largest is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church followed by the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Despite their minority status, Christians are among Syria's elites. While many Christians opted to side with the government, untold numbers did not follow them and sided with the opposition.

Christians numbered 2.2 million when the conflict started in 2011, but their number dwindled to 677,000 in 2021, according to Open Doors. Many of them are sulking to return to a war-ravaged Syria.

Francis has been vehemently standing against the logic of armed power, “arming of borders, the raising of walls, the gagging of the poor" in Syria since his election as pope.

In his Urbi et Orbi message for Easter in 2013, the pope called for peace "for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.”

Given the pandemic and the economic crisis, neither the West nor the Gulf nations have the requisite financial resource, which is pegged at $200 billion, to rebuild Syria.

Christians can pray to God to send another Paul to Damascus to save his centuries-old Church in the Fertile Crescent.

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