Catholic charities sending millions in aid to an ailing Syria and Turkey after deadly earthquake

Rubble surrounded the interior of the destroyed Cathedral of the Annunciation Feb. 11, 2023, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Iskenderun, Turkey. (OSV News Photo by Benoit Tessier, Reuters)

By Paulina Guzik

“All ours survived,” Father Dariusz Dogondke, a parish priest in the Catholic Cathedral of Annunciation in Iskanderun, south Turkey, sighed with relief.

“I don’t have news about any parishioners that have died,” Father Dogondke told OSV News, including priests working at his parish and religious sisters living nearby.

In addition, “the statue of Virgin Mary and St. Anthony of Padua stayed untouched. Part of the altar survived.”

But, he said, “The rest is ruins.”

Father Dogondke learned about the devastating earthquake that killed more than 40,000 in Turkey and Syria as of Feb. 14 while he was on retreat in his native Poland.

“I left on Saturday and on Monday morning the earthquake hit,” he said with disbelief. “I will return to Turkey this Friday to see what I can save from my apartment that was literally attached to the cathedral.”

Rebuilding the cathedral will be a long process. “It’s really building anew that is ahead of us,” Father Dogondke said. But now, he underscored, “the most important thing is to help those in the community.”

“We have some people sheltering in church buildings that survived the earthquake,” he said. “From what I’m hearing, it’s about 100 people, but news that reaches me is still very limited. There is no water, electricity; the situation is very dire in Iskanderun.”

With the 19th-century cathedral lying in ruins, along with many of the homes of his parishioners, Father Dogondke is left with a community of people who are accustomed to serving others who now have nothing left themselves.

“Some of my parishioners now went to live with their families in other cities or in hotels hundreds of miles away,” the priest said, adding that there are no prospects that the situation will improve anytime soon in Iskanderun.

“In less than two minutes, some were left with nothing,” Inés San Martin of Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States said.

Humanitarian needs in Turkey and Syria are desperate, especially in Syria which has suffered a bloody civil war for almost 12 years. Following the Feb. 6 disaster that left many cities and villages in northwestern Syria completely ruined, the United Nations announced Feb. 14 a $397 million humanitarian appeal to aid its people.

“The Syria effort brings together the entire U.N. system and humanitarian partners and will help secure desperately needed, life-saving relief for nearly 5 million Syrians — including shelter, health care, food and protection,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told reporters as the appeal was launched.

Meanwhile, Catholic organizations also are putting millions of dollars into aid efforts.

The U.S.-based Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) raised $200,000 in an online fundraiser that aims to collect $250,000.

“We hope to meet our goal by the end of this week. We have had an incredibly generous response thus far from our donors, and we trust the drive will continue,” said San Martin.

“The magnitude of what happened is hard to fully comprehend,” said San Martin, vice president of communications for the mission societies. “Hundreds of thousands were left homeless and will need our help while they rebuild,” she said, adding that “when people are back on their feet, we will have to work on rebuilding the many churches, monasteries and pastoral homes destroyed by the earthquake.”

German-based Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) will be providing at least $530,000 in immediate assistance to Christians in Syria in the wake of the tragedy.

Given the many years of war and the economic collapse of Syria, the organization already had projects in place and partners on the ground in cities such as Aleppo and Lattakia, which have considerable Christian communities, and which were badly affected by the quake, the organization said.

Several of the relief projects already approved are small in scale and aimed at addressing immediate and short-term needs.

Xavier Stephen Bisits, head of ACN’s Lebanon and Syria section, traveled to Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria, immediately after the quake.

“We are working with the Franciscans in Lattakia, who are providing blankets and food for displaced families; the Armenian Orthodox in Aleppo have prepared a project to supply medicine to displaced families; the Institute of the Incarnate Word wants to work with us on a project for the affected families,” he said in a report released by ACN.

The organization also has a project with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to provide personal hygiene care for the elderly, “many of whom have chosen not to leave their homes and are living alone,” Bisits said.

The most important project, however, has to do with helping people get back to their homes as quickly as possible. For this, however, it is necessary for the houses to be surveyed by engineers to make sure there is no risk of collapse.

Fortunately, according to Bisits, the nine different Christian churches that are present in Aleppo have an excellent working relationship and have already taken the lead.

“On Wednesday night, the Synod of Catholic bishops met in Aleppo and assembled a team of engineers who are going to start assessing the damage to the houses of the Christian families, and the approximate cost to repair each one, and this is something I hope ACN can help with, and we fully expect to be able to do it in a very professional way,” Bisits said.

ACN in Syria also is planning to help families rent houses if they’re unable to live in their own homes because it’s simply too dangerous.

The Caritas network has already started distributing supplies in cities and villages devastated by the earthquake. Mattresses, blankets, hygiene kits and food baskets are among the items most needed by the people whose houses were turned into ruins.

“We’re going to be facing a really difficult situation and a really long-term response,” said John Coughlin, emergency response team leader for Caritas Internationalis.

In Aleppo, Syrian Patriarch Archbishop Absi Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi, together with Caritas staff from Damascus, will assist with the distribution of 1,300 food baskets, mattresses and blankets to six shelters in the city. Caritas Syria teams will also move to Lattakia to support additional distributions of aid.

The earthquake in Syria hit areas that were already devastated by years of conflict. Described as a tragedy within a tragedy, it has left the population in despair. But not without hope.”

In general, people are afraid, but they are showing a solidarity we had not seen in 12 years in Syria. People gather, share, and pray,” said Marie Rose Diab, a Syrian who works for ACN in Damascus.

Those whose houses survived the quake are sharing what they have with others. Even though they themselves don’t have a lot.

Father Fadi Azar, a Catholic priest from Lattakia, where eight Christians were killed, was preparing to depart from the town after the earthquake.

“We had initially thought of leaving Lattakia as well, but we found many people who had come to our parish, including many who did not have cars, they had come to shelter in our church, so we decided to stay with them. A lot of young men and women from our parish have been helping us,” he said.

The priest also has seen signs of solidarity among the people.

“We were deeply moved when one of the parishioners we usually help came today with some loaves of bread to offer others. We all must help each other at this time,” he said.

“We are hoping the generosity we see today will continue,” San Martin said. “We cannot let this story disappear.”

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