Pope Francis expressed his “spiritual closeness” and “solidarity” with those affected by a pair of powerful earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey hit southern Turkey before dawn 6 February wreaking havoc in large areas of neighboring Syria. It was followed by what the geological survey said was a separate 7.5 magnitude earthquake, less than 12 hours later some 60 miles away.
By mid-afternoon local time, the Associated Press was reporting that more than 2,300 people were killed while hundreds remained trapped under the rubble of toppled buildings.
A Catholic priest was among the dead in Syria, according to Aid to the Church in Need. Father Imad Daher died in the collapse of the residence of retired Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, who was injured and hospitalized, the charity said.
Pope Francis was “deeply saddened” to learn of the “huge loss of life” caused by the disaster and offered his “heartfelt condolences” to those mourning losses, wrote Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, in telegrams to the Vatican’s ambassadors in Turkey and Syria.
The pope also prayed that emergency personnel would “be sustained in their care of the injured and in the ongoing relief efforts by the divine gifts of fortitude and perseverance.”
According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the earthquake is the largest disaster to hit the country since 1939, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed more than 32,000 people and injured over 100,000. It is unclear how high the number of dead and wounded from the 6 February earthquakes will reach, he added.
The Turkish president said that more than 45 countries have offered to support Turkey in relief efforts in addition to NATO and the European Union.
The Middle East Council of Churches, representing Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic churches, issued a statement calling on the international community to provide emergency aid to the region and to lift sanctions on Syria “so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity.”
Just a few hours after the quake, the Knights of Malta announced that Malteser International, their relief agency, was sending an emergency response team.
“Our local partners have an urgent need of support, especially in areas of northern Syria where hundreds of thousands of people live in simple refuges and now, with the earthquakes, are even more defenseless,” said Oliver Hochedez, head of the Malteser International emergency response department. “In the hospitals run by our partner organizations the number of injured arriving increases hour by hour. We must provide help rapidly.”
Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo told Vatican News on 6 February that he had never seen such destruction in war-torn Syria. “There was a strong fear and now the people are in the street, in the cold and under the rain,” he said. “There is damage everywhere, even in the cathedral. The libraries are destroyed, the houses crumbled. It’s an apocalyptic situation.”
Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization of national Catholic charities, immediately began a fundraising campaign for relief efforts in Turkey and Syria. The charity has been active in Turkey since 1991 and in Syria since 2011, primarily providing aid for refugees.
In a 6 February telephone interview with OSV News, Giulia Longo, program manager of Caritas Turkey and director of the Catholic charitable organization’s office in Anatolia, said the earthquake devastated the agency’s diocesan offices in Iskanderun.
“Our diocese has been destroyed, the diocesan office has been damaged beyond repair, the church is no longer there,” Longo told OSV News.
“Therefore, the services that we offered no longer function. We are still in contact with people. The facilitators of the community are alive, [however] some of our benefactors have died.”
Longo, who has worked in Turkey for the past four years, was in Italy at the time of the earthquake and is now working to coordinate relief efforts with Caritas Internationalis and its affiliates.
She told OSV News that although Caritas Turkey has provided humanitarian relief in the country, including during the devastating earthquake that struck Izmir in 2020, the destruction of Caritas offices in the country makes relief efforts very difficult.
“Tomorrow morning [7 February] we have an official meeting with the confederations of Caritas to understand how to coordinate all the help that will arrive,” she said. “And today, we are dedicating ourselves to the assessment [of the situation] and to mourning, because this is a day of mourning.”
Junno Arocho Esteves of OSV News contributed to this report.