TURKEY Antioch, the heart of Turkish Christianity, injured by the earthquake

The death toll in Turkey and Syria, although provisional, is more than 11,000. Erdogan visits some of the hardest-hit areas as anger grows among survivors over delays in relief work. Antakya is one of the most isolated places, communications are difficult and there are serious obstacles to sending aid. There are buildings razed to the ground and the historic center of the city has been seriously affected. Vicar of Anatolia: he was a symbol of openness.

Milan () – “There are still tremors, the situation is serious and complicated” and there are many problems getting aid to the city because “the roads are interrupted”. The little that has been done so far “is carried by hand”, including money, because the banks are destroyed and the ATMs do not work. Maria Grazia Zambon, who has lived in Turkey for 20 years as fidei donum of the diocese of Milan (Italy), is a dramatic story. Zambon knows well Antakya, the ancient Antioch, the heart of Christianity in the former Ottoman Empire. Bringing food and basic necessities from abroad “is really complicated” because a part of the city, especially the old town (in the photo), “has been destroyed; there are buildings that have collapsed to the foundations.” Caritas Nacional has sent some cars loaded with merchandise, but fuel is also in short supply and it is difficult to run the generators”.

In these hours, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -after declaring a state of emergency for three months in 10 provinces- is visiting some of the areas most affected by the earthquake, while anger and discontent grows among the survivors due to the delays in the works rescue. Some areas, such as Antakya itself, have serious difficulties receiving aid, while the total death toll, although still provisional, between Turkey and Syria has exceeded 11,000. According to some UN estimates, it could reach 20,000. At the same time, Istanbul itself begins to fear – due to fault movement – another devastating earthquake.

Zambon, consecrated of the order of virgins, is in contact with the Antakya Catholic community, although communications are difficult and phone calls are reduced to brief conversations lasting a few seconds, when possible. And also with Father Francis Dondu, parish priest of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, one of the few buildings that survived the earthquake (because it is shorter and more robust) that has become a shelter for displaced people. “In the city – he explains – there is no electricity or internet and telephone communications are scarce. From the first information it seems that the old town was devastated by the main tremor, with numerous landslides and fires. The church “has opened its doors to Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims” and now it is necessary to “decide how we are going to proceed, because the temperatures are very low, we are in the middle of winter and people need a place to take shelter.”

Antioch, continues Maria Grazia Zambon, “is one of the most isolated centers in all of Turkey, and right now it is difficult to reach it by land because the roads are destroyed; there are also many people who are still missing, buried under the rubble. Even the airport has been rendered unusable”. One of the razed buildings, he continues, is the synagogue that was near the church and formed with it “an ecumenical and interreligious mosaic”. “The scrolls containing the sacred scriptures, with their 2,500 years of history. The head of the Jewish community was transferred to a hospital in another city, because the ones in Antakya are all out of service, damaged or destroyed by the earthquake.”

Monsignor Paolo Bizzeti, Vicar of Anatolia, is coordinating the aid from Italy while waiting to return to Turkey. He confirms that with Antakya “it is particularly difficult to communicate” and it is difficult to receive news from one of the most significant places of Christianity in the Middle East. “If Jerusalem is the mother Church – explains the prelate – it can be considered that Antioch is the mother of dialoguing Christianity. Here began the proclamation of the Gospel” and it is a point of reference “not only for the Byzantine and Western Church, but also for the Syriac. The three great currents of the Church start from Antioch, and today it is still a patriarchal seat, although its leaders reside elsewhere.”

“In the first and second centuries, Christian theology was born in this corner of the world, with Luke, Paul and Barnabas. Open to the nations, it is also considered a point of reference in the Acts of the Apostles”, observes the Vicar of Anatolia. “Today’s Christian community – he continues – is varied, and has been able to unify the date of Easter, an element of no small importance. In Antioch there are several initiatives in common and the relationship with the Turkish authorities is good; he continues being a beautiful point of reference”.

On the other hand, on the social level, “a quarter of its residents are refugees” and this presence inevitably “creates many problems.” However, the city “has always managed, despite everything, to maintain that characteristic of openness, of being a place on the border.” Antioch was the third city of the Roman Empire and an obligatory step on the Silk Road, and “because of its geographical, social and cultural position, it has witnessed facts and events that cannot even be imagined anywhere else”. “In this sense – concludes Msgr. Bizzeti – I want to take up the words of some exegetes, among them Romano Penna: it is the city of the first times, because here a mission was conceived for the first time and here the Church opened itself to help, inspiring” the birth of today’s Caritas.

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Written by Editor TLN

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