Cardinal-designate Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, has said the Pope’s decision to make him a cardinal was a “gesture of love” for Syrian martyrs.

He said that by choosing to give him a red hat Pope Francis was honouring the people and the steadfast presence of a papal representative in the war-torn nation.

“It’s a gesture of love for the martyred Syrian population and it is also a gesture of supporting diplomacy,” Cardinal-designate Zenari told SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Since 2008, Cardinal-designate Zenari has served as the Pope’s representative in Syria, where armed conflict emerged following the 2011 Arab Spring.

The conflict involving government forces, jihadist rebel factions and ISIS has left nearly half a million people dead, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research and, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, at least 7.6 million people have been displaced internally and more than four million have fled the country.

“It’s well noted that the Holy See has always maintained diplomatic relations during this period”, and now, by elevating “his ambassador to the dignity of cardinal, [the Pope] is giving additional value to this presence and to the diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the crisis,” he said.

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