Catholic participation in refugee and humanitarian relief in the Syrian civil war is strengthening a foundation for future peace despite the great difficulties of the region, says an official of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. “The Church is a very big player in the humanitarian efforts,” said Monsignor Giampietro Dal Toso, the pontifical council’s secretary. “The fact that we are helping the whole population without regard to religion, creeds or race … this is a very important factor in these situations to prepare for reconciliation in the future,” he told journalists at an Oct. 31 discussion at the apostolic nunciature in Beirut, Lebanon. He added that in Syria the Church is “very well accepted by all the population,” and religious sisters and brothers are doing “great work” in the field. The Pontifical Council Cor Unum oversees the international relief agency Caritas, which includes both Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services. Cor Unum distributes funds to disaster victims, and coordinates Catholic charitable efforts. Msgr. Dal Toso said the humanitarian situation in Syria is “very difficult.” Of its 22 million people, at least 11 million have been internally displaced or are now refugees in other countries. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict among the government of Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces since the government’s violent response to March 2011 protests escalated into armed conflict. Even Syrians who are not displaced suffer, he said. Everyday costs have increased, as have the cost of medicine and school fees. “The middle class in Syria exists no more,” he said. The upper middle class have either left the country or are now “very poor.” Those who remain in Syria suffer from insecurity. They fear an unclear future and the lack of education possibilities for their children. These Syrians “don’t know if they should leave or if they should stay.” Several Catholic organizations, including Caritas Syria and Jesuit Refugee Services, are working inside Syria in partnership with the local bishops. “This opens the hearts of everyone, because they see what the Church is doing.” “Christians are the bridge in these societies,” Msgr. Dal Toso said, echoing the words of the apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. The archbishop has stressed Lebanese Christians’ important role as a mediator between rival Muslim communities, and he sees this role as a model for the rest of the Middle East. Msgr. Dal Toso said the initiatives of Pope Francis and the Holy See are also reaching Syria’s small Catholic population. The monsignor especially noted three Syrian-related initiatives of Pope Francis: the Sept. 7, 2013 day of prayer for peace in Syria; a meeting of the Middle East nuncios in early October; and the Oct. 20 meeting of the College of Cardinals in which the Pope briefed them on the situation in the Middle East and the position of the Holy See. Because of this outreach, Catholics “did not feel alone,” the monsignor said. Rather, they feel themselves to be part of “the body of the Church.” He said that even small donations of five to ten dollars send the message: “I am near to you, because you are a Christian.” The Syrian Christians see “this concrete nearness of the Church.” Although various factions in the Syrian civil war have grouped together along religious lines, Msgr. Del Toso downplayed a conflict analysis focused on religion. “This is not a religious war, but this is a political war with consequences for all the groups in the country.” Regardless of individuals’ religions, he said, “the whole population is victim of this war.” From the humanitarian perspective, both the Syrian and Iraq crises are “one crisis.” “Our agencies should now focus on ways to face not just the Syrian problem but also the Iraqi problems, which are going to mix together.” Although Msgr. Dal Toso refrained from judging the United Nations as a whole, he said that there is a “good relationship” with U.N. agencies in many countries, and in the Syrian crisis as well. Many Catholic and other Christian groups receive assistance through U.N. agencies. U.N. representatives also recognize the importance of having the Church and individual churches and organizations as partners in humanitarian relief because of their reliability. He said Catholic Relief Services’ effort to help refugees who have left Syria is “very appreciated.” “We are very grateful to the American Church, especially Catholic Relief Services, for the great work it is doing in all the region,” the monsignor said.
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