Seven years into a war that many have described as “hell on earth,” it didn’t seem as though it could get worse. But in February, it did.
An increase in government airstrikes near Damascus resulted in hundreds more casualties in the Syrian conflict, many of them civilians and children. The running total? A shocking half-million dead — all while the world has wrung its hands and passively looked on. A recent call for a cease-fire by the U.N. Security Council was completely ignored. Chemical weapons, though banned, have been used almost 200 times, with devastating results.
The violence has been so bad in recent days that, in the midst of it, UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, said it had “no words,” and released a statement with literally 10 blank lines between quotation marks.
In addition to the dead, more than 5.5 million have fled the country, taking up temporary residence in whatever countries will have them, and another 6 million have been displaced internally.
Pope Francis, who this month has been in office for five of the seven years of the conflict, again raised his voice during his Angelus address Feb. 25, calling for an end to the calamity once and for all.
“This month ... has been one of the most violent in seven years of conflict: hundreds, thousands of civilian victims, children, women and elderly. Hospitals have been hit; people can’t procure for themselves something to eat,” Pope Francis said.
“Brothers and sisters, all this is inhuman,” he added. “Evil can’t be combated with another evil, and war is an evil. Therefore, I make my heartfelt appeal for violence to cease immediately, for access to be given to humanitarian aid — food and medicine — and for the wounded and sick to be evacuated. Let us pray together to God for this to happen immediately.”
Many such appeals have been made over the last seven years; many editorials, such as this one, have been written. But here in the United States, far removed from the violence, we are all too comfortable averting our eyes. It is all too easy to think: “It’s terrible, but what am I to do about a problem so big on the other side of the world?”
But we cannot give into complacency. As people of faith, the Gospel implores us to act. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). We can and must raise our voices, demanding intervention and action from international leaders. How many more years must this barbaric conflict continue? How many more families must be destroyed? How many more children must die before the world comes together to insist on finding a solution?
Catholic Relief Services, which has assisted more than 1.25 million war-affected Syrians, urges seven ways for American civilians to help: through donations, education, fundraising, advocacy, raising awareness on social media, praying, and supporting refugees stateside. Following these leads, every parish can make an action plan. Every individual can make an impact.
If this editorial is not enough to encourage you to action, seek out the devastatingly common images of children with bloodied faces and haunted eyes. They could be yours. They could be ours. Can we stand idly by?
As we mark year seven of the Syrian conflict during this Lent, let us pray for action. Let us pray for peace. And let us take our own steps, however small, to ensure that next year we are not marking year eight.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young