By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — While much of the world has forgotten about the war in Syria and the extreme poverty plaguing most of its people, Pope Francis has not forgotten the Syrian people and the Christians there who continue to witness to the faith, said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
At the end of a meeting with the country’s bishops in Damascus Oct. 26, the cardinal announced that Pope Francis had sent $10,000 for each of the nation’s bishops to use to meet the greatest needs in his diocese or eparchy, according to information released at the Vatican.
“The strings of the harps have for too long played the song of pain and mourning, especially for the dead, the kidnapped, the prisoners, for the children and young people who grew up under the bombs and were deprived of the affection of parents and of normal education,” the cardinal told the bishops.
“Now the lament can be heard that there is no bread, with a shocking percentage of the population forced to live below the poverty line,” he said.
The U.N. World Food Program has estimated that 60% of the country’s population is “food insecure,” reflecting a record level of poverty after 10 years of civil war.
“The air, which was made unbreathable by the bombs and chemical agents, now may be polluted by the indifference that seems to have fallen over the drama of Syria, including in the media,” he said. “However, you know how Pope Francis, from the beginning of his papacy, has kept his gaze on all of you, inviting people to fast and to pray, calling for the end of the fighting, the reestablishment of justice and respect for law.”
Cardinal Sandri, who was scheduled to be in Syria until Nov. 3, also announced that Syrian bishops, local Catholic charities, Vatican officials and representatives of international Catholic aid agencies would meet in Damascus in March to continue efforts to coordinate humanitarian and development aid.
Also Oct. 26, Cardinal Sandri joined Melkite Patriarch Joseph Absi for a Divine Liturgy in the Melkite cathedral in Damascus for the opening of the local preparations for the world Synod of Bishops in 2023.
“If we are here to celebrate the Eucharist of the Lord, it is because despite everything, each of you has preserved the precious treasure of faith,” Cardinal Sandri told the faithful. “Amid the bombs, the ruins and the chemical poisons, while the powerful of the world sit around a table making calculations and the people continue to suffer and are reduced to hunger, with the merchants of death enriching themselves selling weapons, you, the people of God in Syria, have kept the faith.”
Syrian Christians have followed Jesus in caring for one another and in walking the way of the cross, he said.
In the synod preparation process, as Catholics around the world ponder how God is working in their communities and what God is calling the church to, Cardinal Sandri said the participation of every Catholic in Syria would be a gift to the process and to the church.
As members of an Eastern Catholic Church that has maintained a traditional synodal structure of leadership, the word “synod” is familiar to Melkite Catholics, he said. But now that relationship of prayerful collaboration between the patriarch and bishops that marks the Melkite synod must expand to draw in all members of the church, including by establishing or strengthening parish and eparchial councils.
At the same time, he said, care must be taken “so that the meetings and suggestions that are offered to the priests, bishops and patriarch” are not the result of private or group interests, but flow from prayerfully seeking God’s will.