There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the current situation in the Middle East is catastrophic, and there’s no end in sight. It’s a volatile mix of religious, political, historical, ethnic, social and economic elements all firing at the same time. Catholics living in the midst of it have told us that: 1) the only certain thing is that things are uncertain, and 2) Don’t believe anyone who claims to entirely understand what’s happening. Many highly intelligent people around the world have spoken about this being a defining moment in human history. Enter Pope Francis. His election in March of 2013 shocked the world, and the following eighteen months have been quite the encore. There have already been moments of great significance concerning the Middle East: the day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, or the Pope’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories. It would be naïve and unreasonable to think that Pope Francis can single-handedly solve these complex and deep-seeded issues. But we have to be honest with ourselves: no one else even comes close. There is something in Pope Francis, the man, the moral figure that is not found in any other world leader today. And for that reason he is a beacon of hope. Msgr. John Kozar, who runs the pontifical Catholic Near East Welfare Association, told me in our interview for “The Francis Effect” that for the people of the Middle East – both Christian and Muslim – Pope Francis is not simply the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, but a man of peace for the entire human family. As you can tell from the following excerpt, our interview was remarkably candid, focusing primarily on the Syrian crisis and the suffering of Christians and Muslims throughout the Middle East. But we also discussed the reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and the shift away from some of the trappings and excesses of the papal office under Francis.Excerpt from January 29, 2014 interview with Msgr. John Kozar, President of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. To watch the full interview, purchase The Francis Effect DVD box set.
Gomes: From your point of view, how significant is the moral authority that this pope has gained because of the things he says and the things he does on a global scale? Kozar: Well, let me begin by alluding to a few people that I just recently met in Rome for some meetings. One of them was a bishop from Syria. And he said this two or three times: ‘Overwhelmingly, the Christian population in my suffering country and the Muslims,' he said, 'I repeat, and the Muslims, are beseeching me in the strongest way possible to implore the Holy Father to kindly, please get involved with this whole quest for peace in this part of the world. He is the only moral figure that can command enough respect that possibly might bring some peace.' I thought that was pretty strong. Because this is an area where there's very little hope. And externally and internationally people want to write it off: 'forget it. It's not worth it.' But imagine: 'this is the only man that has that moral fibre and that moral acceptance. This upright figure, he might be able to do it. Please, implore him to help us.' Gomes: This pope has mentioned “an ecumenism of blood,” speaking specifically about a solidarity that all Christians feel with the Christians in the Middle East who are being displaced or being killed. What do you make of that? How do you think that has been received on the ground? Kozar: Well, I think it's a very notable approach, and I think it has caught on because there are, I think, all of the Christian denominations and varieties and sub-varieties – there's enough suffering to go around for all of them. But we can't exclude; he includes also the non-Christians. This was brought home by some of the bishops from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, that some of our Muslim brothers and sisters suffer greatly. But the suffering might not be perceived in such strong terms because the numbers are so huge that if people flee that community, it doesn't seem to draw a lot of attention. With Christians being really tiny minorities in some places and still diminishing, it seems to be more dramatic. But I think the Pope is reaching out and suggesting that there is a commonality of suffering here, of martyrdom that's shared by all of the Christian traditions. And one of the things that I find very uplifting is that the lines of distinction are not very strong. When I was with Pope Benedict for that celebration [Mass during a September 2012 trip to Lebanon] I was at a Eucharist with, I think, 400,000 people. I was seated beside some Orthodox Patriarchs and Archbishops, and a few Protestant representatives, and then the faithful and many Muslims. And there was a one-ness. There was a one-ness gathered to pray for peace. And this man now, Francis, as Peter is potentially the great unifier. And I think, yes, people in this troubled part of the world and all over the world, they're really grabbed by that.The Francis Effect DVD box set is now available online and from the Salt and Light store. The 3-disc set includes the feature documentary, official trailers and over 6 hours of extended interviews.