On July 24, His Excellency Jacques Mourad, Syriac Archbishop of Homs, in Syria, along with the president and the director of ACN Italy, Sandra Sarti and Alessandro Monteduro respectively, met with Alfredo Mantovano, Undersecretary of State to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. The Syriac Archbishop of Aleppo, Antoine Chahda, and the Syriac Bishop of Aretusa, Rami al-Kabalan, were also in attendance.
Archbishop Jacques Mourad founded the monastic community of Deir Mar Musa, along with Italian Jesuit Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was kidnapped 10 years ago in Raqqa, on 29 July 2013, and began the meeting by expressing his hope that the search for his co-founder, and for so many other Christians who were also kidnapped, should continue. The Syriac Catholic Archbishop also spoke about the suffering of the Syrian people, who have been badly affected by the current embargo. The sanctions imposed by the international community, he continued, only affect the population, and in particular the Christians, not the government. This fact, in addition to the mass emigration of young people facing a future of low salaries and few prospects, makes it increasingly likely that the political and military events of recent years will lead to the gradual disappearance of the Christian community from the Middle East.
Archbishop Antoine Chahda denounced the lack of revenue, without which the population of Aleppo, and other parts of Syria, finds it impossible to pay for utilities such as electricity, food and medicine, while Bishop Rami Al-Kabalan highlighted the importance of maintaining the Catholic educational system. Many schools have been either nationalised or closed, negatively affecting not only curricular learning, but also the dialogue between different religious groups, which is key to avoiding radicalisation.
Sarti and Monteduro recalled the fact that before the armed conflict, which has been going on for more than a decade, Christians made up around 10% of the population, or two million people, whereas now they are reduced to between 300,000 and 500,000.
The representatives of ACN Italy also stressed that the difficulty of transferring funds and importing goods into Syria because of the sanctions, makes humanitarian assistance almost impossible. Even though the sanctions officially include exceptions for humanitarian aid, in practice these do not work. The European IBAN bank code system and the American SWIFT system block all transfers to Syria, making it very difficult for the pontifical charity to transfer funds for humanitarian reasons. However, these funds are
essential to helping Church-run institutions provide the goods required to ensure the survival of the needy communities, leading the representatives of ACN Italy to make an appeal to the international community to heed the words spoken by Pope Francis in his address to members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, in February: “My thoughts also turn to Yemen and beloved Syria, where, in addition to other serious emergencies, a large part of the population experiences food insecurity and children are suffering from malnutrition. In various cases, humanitarian crises are aggravated by economic sanctions, which, more often than not, affect mainly the more vulnerable segments of the population rather than political leaders. While understanding the reasons for imposing sanctions, the Holy See does not view them as effective, and hopes that they will be relaxed, not least to improve the flow of humanitarian aid, especially medicines and healthcare equipment, so very necessary in this time of pandemic.”
Speaking on behalf of the Italian government, Mantovano expressed his solidarity with the Syriac Archbishop of Homs regarding the dramatic, and still unresolved, kidnapping of Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, assuring him that Italy will continue to search for him, especially through its intelligence services.
The Undersecretary of State also highlighted the fact that economic sanctions should not impede the provision of essential aid to the population, since the embargo currently frustrates all efforts to support the most threatened communities, beginning with the Christians. The Italian government will discuss with its allies, especially within the European Union, how best to introduce changes to the current system of sanctions, in order to help restore hope to a war-weary population.