Msgr. Kozar Uplifted by Faith of Middle East Christians

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Christians in the Middle East show “overwhelming faith,” but many also express fear, said the president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

“I have been uplifted by their demonstration of faith,” Msgr. John Kozar told Catholic News Service near the end of his three-week trip to Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Faith “is the only thing that makes sense — how they manage to maintain themselves in this overwhelming situation,” he said.

Msgr. Kozar, making his first trip since taking over his post in mid-September, said he met with people at all levels of society because he wanted his trip to be more than business meetings.

In a meeting with university students in the Christian West Bank village of Taybeh, he said, he sensed young people’s need to carve an identity for themselves as Christian Palestinians within the complex situation in which they live.

“There is the temptation to bolt, to emigrate … there was a lot of that in Lebanon, less so in Jordan,” he said. “There is a yearning to bridge the reality of being Palestinian, Arab and Christian.”

Because of the violence often associated with the region and with Palestinians, Christians often feel alienated from their surroundings, he said.

He said Christians living in border areas that have experienced wars in the recent past expressed fear about the current volatile political situation in the region. Many Christians live along the southern border of Lebanon, which is controlled by the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, and their villages were in the middle of the fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli army several years ago.

“There was fear in many places,” Msgr. Kozar said of people he met.

“In Lebanon it is a very tense area; in Jordan the king seems to be not only accommodating but also much more tolerant of different faiths, but at the same time in this part of the world there is great concern about what is happening in Syria and in Egypt,” he said. “The Church and CNEWA try to reach out and support the people with our accompaniment.”

While in the past the church was able to financially provide for a wide variety of needs — including food packages and paying for school fees and health care for the population — the current economy calls for a different and perhaps more viable approach to assistance, he said.

“We don’t have the money to build huge edifices or underwrite costly projects. But we can help with planning, with public relations, or medical advice to modernize hospitals,” said Msgr. Kozar. “The sentiment here is: We don’t want charity … we want you to help us with the technical aspect and maybe small seed money.

“They really want to develop themselves and to develop their future. They just want a little help,” he added.

Msgr. Kozar said he was specifically impressed by a project initiated some 10 years ago and coming to fruition now in the central mountainous region of Lebanon. The project has helped Christian farmers move away from growing hashish — which was the only plant able to grow in the rocky terrain — to planting apple orchards. The project involved creating a lake for irrigation and moving truckloads of topsoil to the area so that the apple trees could be planted, he said.

“It is beautiful to see how a project like this has helped them to remain, when they were all being tempted to leave,” said Msgr. Kozar, who was offered an apple as a desert following a meal with the farmers on his visit.

The fruit, he said, smiling, was worthy of a county fair prize.

Msgr. Kozar met with church leaders from multiple denominations in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. He also visited various Christian- run social, educational and medical projects supported by Catholic Near East.

He told CNS he was moved by the work of the various orders of nuns running projects within the communities and the love they are shown by the people.

“In an environment which is overwhelming Muslim these nuns are beloved,” he said, recalling a scene in a Jordanian medical clinic run by Iraqi nuns where young Muslim nursing assistants helped the nuns decorate a manger and Christmas tree.

“They did this because of the love they have for the sisters. I saw this played out in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. The sisters are just the embodiment of the best of what our Catholic tradition is about,” he said.

He added that he would like to see the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine work more toward a ministry of accompaniment in new, creative ways so people can “feel that Jesus, in the presence of the Catholic Church, is always with them, and we are always with them and their suffering.”

He noted the difficult conditions under which residents of Bethlehem, West Bank, must live because of the Israeli separation barrier, a series of walls, fences and barriers that encircles their city like a prison. He added that, during this visit, he has realized the complexity of the situation.

“My experience here is the tremendous complex political and religious reality here. I came here having very little knowledge about the situation and it will be a long way before I understand … the subtleties,” he said.

Msgr. Kozar accompanied Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem on his traditional entrance and procession into Bethlehem, West Bank, and concelebrated Christmas Eve Mass at St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. He also concelebrated Christmas Day Mass with the patriarch.

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