Faith is resilient. It can live in a shipping container. It can live in a rat-infested hovel on the edge of a Cairo dump. But whether the Christian faith can withstand the current onslaught against it in the region where Christ was born is an open question.
“If you compare numbers from 20 years ago, some of the comparisons might be shocking,” said Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), on the precipitous decline of the Christian population across the Middle East. Msgr. Kozar, whose office is headquartered at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan, had just returned from a 12-day visit in early May to the Kurdistan autonomous region in northern Iraq, where thousands of Christians have fled ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) terror, and to Egypt where the dwindling Christian population is hunkered under the suspicious glare of hostile Muslim neighbors.
“If you don’t at least raise that possibility, I don’t think you are in the real world,” Msgr. Kozar responded when asked in an interview with CNY if there was a chance there might not be any significant Christian population left in the Middle East in a generation.
Msgr. Kozar was part of a delegation led by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches, which visited Iraq May 1-5 to convey Pope Francis’ loving concern and his blessing for the displaced Christian population there and for Church personnel working among them. Then Msgr. Kozar traveled to Egypt May 6-12 on behalf of CNEWA to show solidarity and support to the beleaguered Christian community there.
During a Mass celebrated outside a Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil, Kurdistan, May 3, Cardinal Sandri told the displaced Iraqis that their hearts and lives bore the signs of the violence and persecution that had forced them to flee their homes before the onslaught of ISIS. “We remain speechless before this violence and aggression,” he said during his homily, according to Catholic News Service, “but mostly because the human heart seems to have learned nothing from the dramas that shook the 20th century.” And he acknowledged the Holy Father, their pastors and the universal Church feared “a general exodus from lands that have been Christian for 2,000 years.”
Msgr. Kozar told CNY that some 130,000 displaced Iraqi Christians, mostly from the plain of Ninevah, Mosul, and smaller Christian villages, are in Kurdistan which, while technically part of Iraq, is a separate entity with its own language and culture and its own military force, the Peshmerga, which he credited with stemming the ISIS tide and preventing a total rout in the region.
“The Peshmerga, you can’t credit them enough,” Msgr. Kozar said. “They kept this evil from just sweeping all the rest of Iraq and Kurdistan and, who knows, beyond that.”
He described conditions in the sprawling displaced person encampments as crude but improving. “When they first came they were sleeping outside,” he noted. “Then there were crude tents and then shipping containers, and there are still some of those—maybe three or four families in one shipping container.” Some of the shipping containers had no light and no ventilation and, therefore, could be brutally hot or bitterly cold depending on the season. He said other families slept in hallways with only a sheet between them and the next family, and without privacy for bathing or cooking meals, both of which are done in common areas. “And then there are caravans, which are like mini-trailers. It’s like a trailer park in the desert,” he said. Many have neither internal bathrooms nor internal cooking facilities. In the desert, water is naturally a constant concern.
Despite such conditions, Msgr. Kozar said the Iraqi Christians he met were not seeking sympathy. Instead, they maintain “amazing hope and great faith.”
“I think for me and those of us who were privileged to go on this pastoral visit, we saw that their faith is very strong,” he said of the displaced Iraqis. “It’s their faith that has brought them through and continues to bring them through. These are people that are in a horrible circumstance. They were literally fleeing at the end of a sword. But when they gather together at a humble altar in a huge tent, the vibrancy of their participation and the joy in their celebration and in their voices, just the feeling that you get from being with them, you know that these are people of faith.”
Msgr. Kozar said he found the same strong faith among the Christians in Egypt. They face a different, but no less worrisome range of problems, including the perception by their Muslim neighbors that they were supportive of, if not complicit in, the military overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi nearly two years ago.
In the aftermath of that coup, mobs attacked Christians and burned their churches.
“About 55 church compounds were burned, destroyed, and I visited four or five of these,” Msgr. Kozar said. “And although there is a great improvement in having this government, we feel more protected but by no means are we free of violence or free of danger.”
Unlike other parts of the Middle East where better-educated Christians are at least better financially positioned, Christians in Egypt are often at the bottom of the social strata.
Part of the reason Msgr. Kozar visited Egypt was to show CNEWA’s solidarity for this marginalized, impoverished community. On the outskirts of Cairo is a municipal dump and on the fringes of that dump live 900,000 people in a squalid shantytown. They make their living picking through the garbage. These “garbage pickers” are overwhelmingly Christian. There are no public utilities and no water, no sewers and no electricity. You won’t find the shantytown on any government map.
“They collect garbage in donkey carts or on their backs and they hand-sort it,” Msgr. Kozar explained. “Food they can’t eat, they give to the pigs. And they sort out plastic. They have crude, hand-cranked machines to mulch plastic for recycling, same thing with aluminum.”
Conditions for Christians in the rural areas are little better. Most are subsistence farmers that live in rough stone huts, usually with their livestock in the same room. In the village Msgr. Kozar visited three hours south of Cairo, a badly polluted canal that ran from the Nile provided irrigation and a place to bathe. “There is a lot of topical skin disease and bronchial disease,” he noted. “Beautiful people, very welcoming, very prayerful, very humble. But they cherish their faith. They cherish their faith.”
Msgr. Kozar said he is concerned that amid the turmoil roiling the region, the world may have forgotten about the plight of the impoverished, besieged Christians facing an uncertain future in Egypt. “Egypt has fallen off the radar screen for most people in the West,” he said. “We’ve been lulled to think everything is fine.”
On June 1, CNEWA released $849,200 in aid to Christians in the Middle East. “The funds address a broad spectrum of needs across a broad area of the region,” said Msgr. Kozar, “and reflect the vast scale of the challenges facing Middle East Christians.” CNEWA’s aid supports a diverse range of initiatives, including post-trauma counseling, medical care, renovation of church institutions and the formation of sisters and priests. CNEWA’s personnel in the region administer all programs.
As to the long-term future for Christians in the Holy Land, Msgr. Kozar said he could only be certain of one thing.
“What I’m optimistic about is that the Christians that remain will be very true to their faith. I’m convinced that these are people of profound faith.”