Cardinal Mario Zenari in St. Peter’s Basilica on Nov. 19, 2016. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
The apostolic nuncio to Syria met with diplomats accredited to the Vatican Thursday to inform them that an estimated 11 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria since 2008, said that, after nearly 10 years of war, the Syrian people had now been hit with a “poverty bomb” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Zenari explained that “many Syrians have lost hope,” while lamenting that Syria seemed to have disappeared off the “media radar.”
A statement from the Holy See press office yesterday said that the cardinal met with members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See in the Vatican’s New Synod Hall to “rekindle attention toward the situation in Syria.”
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin also expressed his hope at the meeting that the world would not grow accustomed to the “litany of horrors that every day comes to us from that tormented nation,” according to the press office.
Syria, which has an estimated population of 17.5 million, is facing an unprecedented hunger crisis, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. It estimates that 9.3 million Syrians are food insecure — an increase of 1.4 million people from the beginning of 2020 — as economic instability has increased the cost of food.
Zenari told diplomats that the sanctions imposed on Syria “inexorably affect the population,” highlighting the problem of missing and detained persons in Syria.
In an interview published in L’Osservatore Romano 18 September, Cardinal Zenari said that international sanctions imposed on Syria have had “quite negative effects.”
The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on the Syrian government. The new U.S. sanctions, which came into force 17 June, aimed to deter foreign business activity with the Syrian regime or military forces in Syria acting on behalf of Russia, Syria, or Iran.
While the Syrian regime argues that the country’s poverty crisis is due to Western sanctions, the war, the coronavirus pandemic, and the collapse of neighbouring Lebanon’s economy have also taken their toll on the economy.
Zenari said in the interview that many Syrians had died in the country’s long conflict from various types of weapons, “from cluster bombs, to barrel bombs, to missiles launched everywhere.”
“However, if there were these bombs before, now there is what I call the poverty bomb: according to United Nations data, this bomb is hitting more than 80% of people, and this is very serious. You can see the effects of hunger, malnutrition of children, above all,” he said.
The cardinal explained that Lebanon’s financial crisis had only worsened Syria’s humanitarian situation.
Lebanon’s economy, which served as an important bridge to Syria’s, has one of the world’s highest public debt burdens. The national currency has lost 80% of its value against the U.S. dollar since last year.
Zenari explained that humanitarian aid for Syria typically passed through Lebanese banks, which have been in crisis. Humanitarian projects, including those of the Church, also generally passed through Lebanon. But in recent months, the closure of Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Jordan had complicated matters.
An estimated $40 billion of Syrian deposits in Lebanese banks have become inaccessible, according to the International Crisis Group.
“The war has led to the destruction of about half of the hospitals, and it is a very serious thing, now that COVID-19 presents itself, to have these health facilities devastated,” Zenari said.
“What, unfortunately, is dying in Syria, in the hearts of different people, is hope: many people, after 10 years of war, no longer seeing economic recovery, reconstruction, are losing hope.”