Extending the country’s longstanding support for persecuted Christians and other victims of violence in the Middle East, the Hungarian government has announced that it will provide nearly $1.7 million to a project aimed at supporting hospitals in Syria.

Hungarian Ambassador to the Holy See Eduard Habsburg told Crux he’s happy with the initiative, because it “finally makes much more visible what Hungary has been doing for years behind the scenes. Hungary has been doing this all the time.”

“I am extremely happy that we can help out and react to a call from the Holy See,” he said, explaining that Italian Cardinal Mario Zenari, who has served as the Vatican’s envoy to Syria for the past decade, approached Hungarian officials for help, knowing how much support the government has given to persecuted Christian communities.

Hungary is the first public donor to support the project through their “Hungary Helps” humanitarian assistance program.

The government “took this call with lots of joy,” Habsburg said, adding that for him, one of the most important aspects of the project is that while the bulk of hospital staff are Christian, Muslims will be the primary beneficiaries of their support, “so it is a project that will help peace in the region between different religions.”

Launched by the AVSI Foundation in 2016 in partnership with the Gemelli Foundation and the pontifical charity branch “Cor Unum,” which is overseen by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, the Syrian “Open Hospitals” project provides medical care for those living in poverty and supports the activities of three Catholic non-profit hospitals in Syria.

Established in 1972, AVSI is a non-profit which seeks to promote development and support humanitarian aid projects throughout the world. The decision to invest in Syrian hospitals was announced earlier this week following a meeting between Zenari and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Facilities supported by the project include the St. Louis Hospital in Aleppo, founded in 1905. Managed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, it has 60 beds and employs 18 physicians and 44 nurses.

Also assisted are a French hospital in Damascus founded in 1905 and managed by the Company of Daughters of St Vincent de Paul, containing 104 beds and employing 47 physicians and 139 nurses, as well as an Italian hospital in Damascus founded in 1913 and which is run by the Salesian Sisters Daughters of Mary Help of Christians and has 55 beds and employs 26 physicians and 54 nurses.

The project, which will run from 2017-2020, is to offer the poorest populations in Aleppo and Damascus with quality medical care, to establish a social office dedicated to evaluating patients’ financial needs, to upgrade hospitals with modern, up-to-date equipment, and to offer training to medical, administrative and managerial staff.

Since the start of Syria’s bloody war in 2011, more than 13.5 million people, including 6 million children, have suffered from a dire humanitarian crisis, with the bulk of the population lacking basic food and supplies.

According to U.N. estimates, some 11.5 million people, 40 percent of whom are children, lack proper medical care, as hospitals have been a consistent target in the war, prompting some two-thirds of Syria’s medical staff to flee the country.

Many healthcare institutions still in operation in Syria are forced to operate beyond their means. They often lack supplies, infrastructure and trained medical staff, making it difficult to provide proper patient care.

In a brief Christmas letter for 2018, Zenari said “people who die due to a lack of medical care are more numerous than those who die from bombs.”

The three Catholic hospitals in the country, he said, offer free medical care to the poor no matter their religious affiliation, allowing some 400 impoverished people a week to receive care.

To date, three social offices have been established to evaluate treatment requests and identify those most in need, and more than 15,700 patients have been accepted and treated free of charge. Hospitals have received updated equipment and a new IT system has been installed for future training.

As of December 2018, 5,457 patients have been cared for at the French hospital in Damascus, 7,065 at the Italian hospital in Damascus, and 3,236 at the Aleppo hospital, most of whom are between the ages of 50-70.

In his comments to Crux, Habsburg said the “Open Hospitals” initiative is one of many initiatives in Syria supported through the Hungary Helps program, including a Syrian healthcare project run by the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service, as well as scholarships to Syrian students to attend university in Hungary through the “Stipendium Hungaricum Programme.”

Hungary has also funded projects launched by the Greek Catholic archdiocese of Aleppo aimed at helping refugees stay in the country, so far allowing some 100 families to return to their homes. It’s also funded projects of the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Syrian Armenian Reformed Churches, all allowing displaced people to return to their homes.

In terms of the hospitals supported through the “Open Hospitals” initiative, Habsburg said that while undamaged and operating at full capacity, they are unable to treat everyone.

“These hospitals treat people regardless of their religion, therefore they also serve reconciliation and social cohesion of the Syrian society and promote peace between Christians and Muslims,” he said, adding that the donation will keep the hospitals running for a year, after which the government will evaluate the outcome and determine whether they will give further support.

The reason for getting so deeply involved, Habsburg said, is because Hungary is “firmly convinced that trouble should not be brought to Europe, but rather the help should be taken where the trouble is.”

Calling the “Hungary Helps” program a “a groundbreaking initiative,” he said the main goal is to support the regions impacted by migration crises.

“Hungary wants to show an example with its humanitarian commitment and the help of persecuted Christians, which is unique in both its philosophy and effectiveness,” he said, noting that not only does Hungary provide support to Syria, but they have also funded reconstruction efforts of Christian villages on the Nineveh Plain in Iraq and are currently helping to build a school in Iraqi Kurdistan with the help of the local Catholic Church.