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Catholic aid agencies urge the U.N. Security Council to allow delivery of lifesaving assistance to northwest Syria

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The grandchildren of Aisha Bakri, an elderly Syrian woman who lost her sons during the Syrian war, stand together in Afrin, Syria, March 17, 2022. More than 30 international aid agencies, including Catholics and other Christian groups, warn of a humanitarian catastrophe should the U.N. Security Council fail to renew a resolution by July 10 allowing the cross-border delivery of lifesaving assistance to northwest Syria. (CNS photo/Mahmoud Hassano, Reuters)

AMMAN, Jordan– More than 30 international aid agencies, including Catholics and other Christian groups, warn of a humanitarian catastrophe should the U.N. Security Council fail to renew a resolution by July 10 allowing the cross-border delivery of lifesaving assistance to northwest Syria.

Humanitarians say the Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Turkish border is the critical lifeline to reach 4.1 million, mostly women and children, with food, COVID-19 vaccinations, critical medical supplies, access to clean water and education, especially after other aid avenues have been closed.

“The impact of 11 years of conflict has left Syria’s health system struggling to cope. Across the country, Syrian communities are now without sufficient functional health facilities, essential medical supplies, or qualified personnel,” said David Miliband, who heads the New York-based International Rescue Committee.

“Failing to reauthorize the only remaining border crossing could represent the biggest attack on health care since the humanitarian crisis began,” Miliband warned. His and other relief agencies urge U.N. Security Council members “to put principles above politics,” in order to renew aid delivery for a further “12 months to ensure more lives are not needlessly lost.”

U.N. Security Council member Russia, which backs the Assad regime in Syria, has expressed reservations about the measure, saying it might consider a period of six months. Syria and Russia have opposed aid going through the Bab al-Hawa crossing into regions held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and allied Turkish soldiers, saying the arrangement violated the country’s sovereignty. Some soldiers also have connections to Islamist groups.

Aisha Bakri, an elderly Syrian woman who lost her sons during the Syrian war, sits with her grandchildren inside her house in Afrin, Syria, in this March 17, 2022, file photo. More than 30 international aid agencies, including Catholics and other Christian groups, warn of a humanitarian catastrophe should the U.N. Security Council fail to renew a resolution by July 10 allowing the cross-border delivery of lifesaving assistance to northwest Syria. (CNS photo/Mahmoud Hassano, Reuters)

In early July 2020, China and Russia vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have allowed for two border crossing points from Turkey to deliver humanitarian aid to Idlib, Syria. Days later, the Security Council authorized aid delivery only through Bab al-Hawa. That one-year mandate was extended for a year July 9, 2021.

The United Nations recently reported that the conflict, which began in 2011, has seen more than 300,000 civilians killed and has forcibly displaced 13.5 million Syrians inside and outside the country. That is more than two-thirds of Syria’s population of around 18 million people.

Andrea Avveduto, communications chief for Pro Terra Sancta, told Catholic News Service that right now “there is a huge economic crisis, and 90% of the population is in an extremely difficult situation.”

“For example, we distribute food in Aleppo to 3,000 people each day, and just a year ago it was just 1,000 people. The economic crisis is very dangerous and increasing,” Avveduto explained.

Pro Terra Sancta, based in Jerusalem and Milan, supports the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Since the start of the conflict, it has aided Franciscan fathers in Syria by opening four emergency centers in Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo, Knayeh and Yacoubiyya, the latter places found in northwest Syria.

But the group has difficulty getting aid into Syria due to international sanctions that forbid the transfer of funds into the country, particularly into the north, from Lebanon and Jordan. Pro Terra Sancta says those funds must get to the Franciscans to help those in need.

Pope Francis repeatedly has called for an end to the war in Syria. On June 20 he urged the international community to find a “just and equitable” solution “to the tragedy of Syria.”

Church officials in Syria have called for an end to international sanctions on the country. Most sanctions were put in place in an effort to pressure the government to end the repression of civilians.

However, Avveduto also pointed out the difficulties of operating in northwest Syria, where Turkey appears to try to occupy more Syrian territory and where Islamist groups, including the so-called Islamic State militants, operate.

“We are really afraid because the situation is very bad. With the war in Ukraine, Russian troops have moved from Syria to Ukraine,” Avveduto explained.

“The presence of (Iran-backed) Shiite groups is also increasing,” he said, pointing to an explosive mix.

“What should a Syrian mother do if she wakes up on the 11th of July to find out that food aid for her and her children will be cut off? How would you tell the 97,000 pregnant women that they will have to live without emergency obstetric or postnatal care? How will a family of six survive the coming winter without heat or building materials to fix their flooded tents?” Sofia Sprechmann Sineiro, head of CARE International, asked in an interagency statement requesting the U.N. renewal.

“The U.N. Security Council must uphold its responsibility to ensure this lifeline of cross-border aid for Syrians in the northwest of the country remains in place for another 12 months,” she said.