COVID-19 does what war couldn’t: churches closed in Syria, nuncio says

Internally displaced Syrian children walk together at a camp near the Turkish border in Atmeh, Syria, in early March. The apostolic nuncio to Syria warned that if the COVID-19 pandemic does spread, it would be “an unimaginable catastrophe considering that more than half of the hospitals are not operative because of the damage done by the war.” (CNS photo/Khalil Ashawi, Reuters)

By Cindy Wooden 
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Cardinal Mario Zenari, the nuncio to Syria, said he is raising special prayers these days to Sts. Cosmas and Damian, fourth-century physicians who offered free care for the sick in Syria.

As the Syrian civil war enters its 10th year, still sowing death and destruction, the danger is extremely high of the coronavirus pandemic spreading in a country devastated by war and where more than 6 million people are internally displaced.

In an interview April 4 with Vatican News, the cardinal said that despite the war, up to this point Christians in Syria celebrated Holy Week and Easter every year, “even under the risk of bombs and mortar attacks.”

But the coronavirus pandemic has done what the war could not, he said. All the churches are closed for worship.

“It is a totally new, unimaginable, unexpected, difficult-to-describe time of preparation” for Holy Week and Easter, he said, which makes the situation in Syria similar to many places around the world.

“All humanity is living the mystery of the passion of the Lord at this moment,” he said. “It will be a Resurrection to the sounds of church bells and the whine of ambulance sirens.”

Among the Syrian population, he said, there is great fear. At the end of March, only a dozen cases of COVID-19 infection were reported, “but one must ask if this isn’t just the tip of the iceberg. If the pandemic does spread, it would be an unimaginable catastrophe considering that more than half of the hospitals are not operative because of the damage done by the war.”

In addition, he said, “hundreds of thousands of displaced people live in overcrowded camps” without sufficient hygiene and health care facilities. “How can they wash their hands frequently if they struggle just to find water to drink?”

But, Cardinal Zenari said, there are “thousands, millions of generous people who are moved and feel compassion for the needy,” not just in Syria, but throughout the world.

“The long and bloody Syrian conflict has revealed many Veronicas, who dry many disfigured faces; Cyrenes, who help so many people carry their burdens; numerous good Samaritans, some of whom — even volunteers — have lost their lives bending down on the walkway” to help a person in need, he said.

The same thing is being seen around the world with “the many people who have and heroically continue to risk their lives to assist those sick with the coronavirus.”

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