Father Custos, after the earthquake in Syria, the Franciscan communities present in the area rallied round immediately to give aid and support to the local population. Can you give us a picture of the situation in the light of the latest news you have received?
I am in contact every day with all the friars who are living in Syria today. The situation in Damascus is essentially calm, because the city was not hit very strongly by the earthquake: however in Damascus our friars are putting up homeless people from the hardest hit areas who have taken shelter in the Casanova (hotel for pilgrims, Ed.’s note) linked to the Shrine of the Conversion of St Paul. The situation in Aleppo is definitely more serious. Because in Aleppo the fury of the earthquake came on top of the destruction of more than ten years of war, giving the final blow to many buildings that had already been devastated by mortars, bombs and so on. About four thousand people are being helped every day by our friars, coordinated by the Father Guardian fr. Bahjat. They are distributed between the Terra Sancta College, which at the moment is the place where most of the homeless are staying, and the facility of Er-Ram. There was also immediate need to accommodate people in Lattakia; there, they were taken into the parish halls. In all these cities, it is not just giving a roof to these people but also food: above all in Aleppo, where 4,000 meals a day are given out.
Of all the communities in Syria, can you tell us which one has been hit the hardest?
The most dramatic situation concerns the villages in the Valley of the Orontes, in the region of Idlib, because this is the most difficult area to reach and where the earthquake was the most devastating. The circumstances here, already critical due to the isolation of the area and also because it is under the control of the Jihadists, have worsened exponentially with the damage caused by the tremor. At the moment, one of our friars, fr. Louai, is following the situation in Yacoubieh and the neighbouring villages. The church of Yacoubieh itself is out of bounds and our facilities have been damaged and are unsafe. Most of the people here have lost their homes.
The Custody of the Holy Land is raising funds for Syria through two channels, the Pro Terra Sancta association and through the bursar’s office of the Custody. Can you tell us how this aid can help the friars and the Syrian population?
The economic and financial aid can help the Syrian friars so that they can buy staple goods which are fundamental in this situation. In Aleppo, the government is already helping our community by providing diesel oil, gas and food because distributing four thousand meals a day is an extremely difficult mission. If I can make a joke, Jesus multiplied bread and fish for 5,000 people, but he did it twice in the Gospels: here we have to look after all these people every day. Through this fundraising, everyone can play their part: private individuals can help us in supplying basic commodities. Of course, we are not the United Nations. What we do is a drop in the ocean, but at least a few hundred people can have a roof over their heads for the time being, a blanket, and a hot meal. There are actions of solidarity which are very moving: in the past few days, a theatre company from a small town in Trentino (Italy) contacted me as the youngsters wanted to donate all the takings of a play they put on to the earthquake victims. This is a sign that people are sensitive and that everyone can help.
We have learned that some friars are about to leave to support the hard work of the Franciscans of the Aleppo community.
There are some young brothers leaving, who will take shifts to offer their service in those places. As soon as possible, I myself will try and go to visit the friars to encourage them and to encourage the local population. It is necessary and fundamental that the institutional figures are also present.
On the very delicate subject of the sanctions that affect the government of Damascus, you yourself recently suggested opting for an intelligent solution of mitigation of the sanctions. Do you think that we are going in this direction?
The United States has already decided to suspend the sanctions for 180 days and this is something very positive. Let’s hope that Europe pays attention and does the same, and above all that those sanctions which prevent humanitarian aid, from my point of view immoral and inhuman, are suspended, because they affect ordinary people, civilians and the weakest sectors of the population. The situation in Syria was already critical before the earthquake: people live here with $50 a month, with fuel and electricity rationed … How many of us could resist in such a situation? How many of us would be capable today of living with one or two hours of electricity a day? Or with rationed bread? We have to consider things from the point of view of human dignity, people’s dignity.
Can you share with us some particular aspects of this extraordinary and dramatic situation that have struck you the most in the past few days?
What has struck me the most is the spirit of abnegation immediately shown by our friars. From the very first hours, after overcoming the fear that they also felt, they did not spare themselves a second and have worked non-stop to take in the homeless, console those who have lost someone, go and visit the remote villages: I am thinking of those who live in the Valley of the Orontes. They have taken part in and still continue to share the suffering and the sacrifice of the people and at the same time they have opened wide the doors of the convents. When they asked me, “What should we do?” I said “Give everything you can,” because this is part of our life choice. None of them, in the face of danger, has ever put their own well-being and personal safety before doing good and helping other people.
F. De Grazia / S. Giuliano