Expert: Let’s call ‘persecution’ what it is
A diminishing Christian minority is being threatened with extinction by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but those being persecuted and even killed are a symbol of unshakable faith that must move the rest of the world to protect their lives and resolve a seemingly intractable humanitarian crisis, a Middle East expert told the annual meeting of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre Nov. 8.
Msgr. John E. Kozar, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, briefed 450 knights and ladies of the Southern Lieutenancy of the Holy Sepulchre – which encompasses six southeastern U.S. states – on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Msgr. Kozar said he has come away from his personal visits with refugees in resettlement camps and elsewhere amazed at the Christians’ spiritual resolve.
“I don’t say this lightly, but I am dead serious – the depth of their faith is such that they can weather these outrageous storms of daily persecution and even martyrdom,” Msgr. Kozar said. “I’ve experienced it.”
A humanitarian crisis
With ISIS sweeping through Iraq and Syria involved in a civil war, Christians literally are fleeing for their lives, Msgr. Kozar said.
“Iraq is basically lost,” he said. There are places that ISIS might not control today, but they could come in the darkness of night and be there tomorrow.
“Christians have basically left. They were given 20 minutes to flee. They had a choice to convert (to Islam), but even their ‘conversion’ might not be accepted. They could pay a tax, but that tax might double tomorrow. Or they could flee or they could die.”
In Syria, the situation is even “more complicated,” Msgr. Kozar said, because there are so many warring factions – an unstable government, the resistance fighters, terrorist groups and the Russians – that it is nearly impossible to know what will happen.
“People are being bombed, shot at and are taking artillery fire,” he said. “Who knows who the enemy is and where the enemy is? That has precipitated a mass migration of people to the shore.”
Some of the refugees have tried to get to Greece or Turkey, but some have been turned back. Now many are trying to reach Germany or Scandinavia.
“It’s important to note that these refugees include Muslims, too,” Msgr. Kozar said. “Muslims are also being persecuted if they don’t conform to the harsh variety of Islam that ISIS demands. It’s an extreme form of Shariah (law) that is taking people back to the Dark Ages. If they don’t accept it, they, too, will be killed.”
Cross is a symbol of faith
One of the stunning signs of the faith of Middle East Christians is the small tattoo of a cross that they often have inscribed on the inside of their wrist at their baptism. Other Christian families have placed a cross symbol above the front entrance to their modest homes, he said.
“It’s important because when ISIS came into these villages, they’d look for the cross, and they would rape those women,” Msgr. Kozar said. “Mosul is a big city, and it was taken overnight. The first thing ISIS did was to blow up the convents, the churches and the schools to show the ultimate degradation of Christianity. It was the ultimate way to degrade and humiliate Christians, by blowing up the very convents where the sisters were taking care of orphans.”
In his visits to refugees in the Middle East, Msgr. Kozar said he became emotional when he saw a group of 500 to 600 people standing on a grassy knoll for the celebration of Mass by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
“They were singing their hearts out,” he said.
U.S. Catholics need to study
Msgr. Kozar said Catholics should inform themselves of what is going on. The Catholic New East Welfare Association has a website, www.cnewa.org, that is regularly updated with stories and photos about what is taking place. They also can write their Congressional leaders about taking steps to stop the persecution and call the conflict what it actually is.
“Our government still does not refer to what is happening as persecution,” he said. “It refers to it as an internal conflict or a religious conflict or a campaign against minorities. They don’t use the word ‘persecution.’ This is a whole tradition which preceded Islam and is responsible for so much of the education, architecture, education and agriculture, but we’re being wiped out.”
Southern group takes action
The Southeastern Lieutenancy of the Holy Sepulchre has about 1,800 members, and they make voluntary contributions each year that are earmarked for maintaining a Christian presence in the Holy Land through churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals.
Raymond Garrity, a member of St. Ann Parish and lieutenant of the organization, said the group raised $950,000 last year for Holy Land ministries.
Msgr. Kozar said those working with Christians in the Middle East desperately need that support. He also emphasized that the Middle East extended far beyond the boundaries of Israel.
For example, while Egypt has a population of about 9 million Christians, they basically work low-paying jobs and have few rights. In Saudi Arabia, Catholics cannot celebrate Mass in public.
“It’s sort of what you find in India – they are a nameless class,” he said. “They are the lepers of the culture.”
As for the resolving the humanitarian crisis, Msgr. Kozar said it will take global powers coming together to defeat ISIS. He said King Abdullah II of Jordan, educated in the West, could be a key player.
Msgr. Kozar made a point of telling the knights and ladies that their church finery – the robes, hats and veils that are a symbol of the order – should prompt them to think of their persecuted neighbors.
“I just visited with tens of thousands of people of every age, they held their investiture ceremony,” he said. “Their investiture was their heroic living out of faith. They are our brothers and sisters, knights and ladies.”