The head of a papal agency that gives assistance to Christians in the Near East says local Muslims are largely positive towards their Christian neighbors and even appreciative of their presence.
“The broad majority of Muslims are people of good-will,” Monsignor John E. Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told CNA June 21.
“Not only are they tolerant of us Christians, they’re even supportive. They value the schools and clinics that we have.”
“We hope that their influence will calm the radicals, or (even) convert the radicals to a more balanced and tolerant approach of peace among all men and women everywhere,” he added.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, founded by Pius XI in 1926, works with Eastern Catholic Churches to help poor Christians in the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Eastern Europe.
Monsignor Kozar, a native of Pittsburgh, voiced support for a Palestinian state, suggesting it could help “solve” the turmoil in Syria, Egypt and Iraq.
“There has to be some kind of a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a Palestinian state,” he said.
“Right now it is, but it isn’t (a state),” he said.
Palestine is a non-member observer state at the United Nations, as is the Holy See. It is recognized as a state by some 130 countries, yet its territory has been occupied by Israel since 1967.
Monsignor Kozar noted that the major players – Russia, France, England, the United States – “all have to lend support to some kind of a resolution.”
He stated that this would also help prevent Arabic Christians from fleeing or being persecuted in the region any further.
Christians “have always been messengers of peace,” he said.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association is a member of the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches, which met in Rome June 19 and 20.
The Reunion is an association of funding agencies dedicated to helping Eastern Catholic Churches, particularly in the Middle East.
During the meeting, testimony was given by the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad, Louis Raphael I Sako; Archbishop Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria; as well as a nun and a Franciscan priest who work in Syria.
Monsignor Kozar said that although his organization has more experience in helping persecuted Christians after having worked in Iraq, Syria and Egypt “have been unraveling in different ways.”
“The Patriarch of Iraq kept looking at the Patriarch of Egypt and he said, ‘I pray for you … be ready, you don’t know how this will unravel’,” the priest reported at his office in Rome.
The Chaldean patriarch had told his Egyptian counterpart that the number of Christians in Iraq is two thirds less than it was only five to eight years ago.
Despite this exodus, Monsignor Kozar said Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches have a sense of solidarity with Middle East Christians and witnessed a message of “fraternity”.
Pope Francis met with the Reunion yesterday, encouraging its members to ground their work in prayer and the sacraments.
“The Pope said specifically in our audience, ‘please pray for Syria,'” Monsignor Kozar remarked.
“The Pope gave a short exhortation to us to not forget this area, and he singled out Syria.”
Syria is in the midst of a 27-month long civil war which has claimed more than 93,000 lives, and has driven some 1.5 million people out of their home country.
Msgr. Kozar said that he found the Franciscan priest’s testimony the most interesting during the gathering.
“He is working in a war ravaged town (in Syria) and he is under threat from both sides.”
Syrian rebels complain that the priest is “not taking up arms or encouraging it,” and government supporters ask “why aren't you with us?”
Monsignor Kozar told of how after both sides asked the Franciscan to stop ringing his church's bell, he refused to do so.
“We are who we are, I will ring my bell, give people a little ray of hope,” Monsignor Kozar said, repeating the Franciscan’s words.
“I found that very inspiring.”
The priest said the organization gives everyone help, including both Christians and Muslims, because “we never bar anyone in the name of Jesus.”
He explained that people in the West tell him “it’s not worth it, get out: let happen what will happen.”
“But as someone very eloquently told us, the Middle East without Christians is not the Middle East,” he affirmed.