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Arab Priest Champions Interreligious Dialogue

By David Snyder

From the Convent of the Holy Family on a misty hilltop north of Beirut, Father Makram Kozah can look out over the sweeping valley surrounding his birthplace near the sea. For Father Kozah, a Maronite priest for 5 decades, human rights campaigner and interreligious communicator who lives as an Arab Christian in the Middle East, Bikfaya is a place of solitude.

Father Makram Kozah

Father Makram Kozah, right, sits in the chapel of the Convent of the Holy Family in Bikfaya, a community north of Beirut. Staff members, in background, of CRS partner agency Adyan made a documentary of Father Kozah's life to help start an interreligious dialogue with Lebanon's young people. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"I grew up with Muslims. We lived together, and there were no problems," Father Kozah says, thinking back to his days as a young student here in the then mixed Christian and Muslim community of Bikfaya. "As a Catholic, I was very committed to my religion, and there was great respect."

Drawn to the priesthood as a teenager, Father Kozah joined the seminary after finishing his studies at the American University of Beirut. The experience exposed him to people from 49 nationalities, broadening his mind and encouraging the dialogue and cross-cultural understanding that has marked his life.

As a young seminarian in the early 1960s, Father Kozah was introduced for the first time to the hard realities of life in Lebanon's poorer Muslim communities. Accepting an invitation from a French priest, Father Kozah lived among Lebanon's poor residents in the impoverished community of Karantina—which means "quarantine" in Arabic—as they scavenged scrap metal to sell.

"It was new for me. I had never seen slums, never lived in slums," Father Kozah says. "So we started to work with local sanitation workers and social workers to see what we could do."

It was a trend of activism and interreligious commitment that was to define the next decades of his life. Father Kozah helped organize literacy classes in Muslim communities, taught legal rights to underage Muslim factory workers and moved to the community of Naba'a, a mixed Muslim and Christian neighborhood north of Beirut, just before the outbreak of Lebanon's calamitous civil war. As many Christians fled the interreligious fighting that erupted in Naba'a, Father Kozah stayed, crossing through checkpoints guarded by Muslim militia and helping as he could throughout the war years.

Copy of the Gospels in Arabic

Father Makram Kozah holds a copy of the Gospels, translated over a 6-year period into Arabic by Father Kozah and a team of fellow Maronite priests. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"There were some Christians there, but the area was controlled by Palestinians," Father Kozah says. "There was much fighting, but I was respected. I was the only priest there, along with some sisters."

Lebanon Is a Message

After 15 bloody years, the war ended in 1990, but Lebanon's religious and societal landscape was forever changed. Communities became more rigidly divided by religion, a challenge that remains today as Lebanon's complicated political and social fabric is underpinned with religious factionalism. For Father Kozah, that polarization is perhaps the greatest challenge to peace in Lebanon today.

"It's very difficult problem, and we have to face it," Father Kozah says. "As Pope John Paul ll said, Lebanon is more than a country—it's a message. By living together we enrich each other, and Lebanon has this special message."

So powerful has Father Kozah's example of interreligious dialogue been throughout his life that Catholic Relief Services partner agency Adyan was drawn to make a documentary of his life and the message of dialogue between faiths. Specializing in youth awareness, especially with an interfaith message, Adyan saw the need to reinforce that message among Lebanon's young people.

"The main objective of the movie was to show models, respected in their communities, and how they acted in the name of their faith during the war in Lebanon," says Tony Sawma, director of Adyan's media production department and the motivating force behind Against the Current, the documentary Adyan produced in early 2011. "We were convinced we had to spread this message."

Now 73, Father Kozah is still bent on spreading that message himself. Teaching seminarians in the same school where he once studied, Father Kozah encourages his young future priests to live and work as he did in Muslim communities. He sends seminarians to countries such as Sudan and Egypt to provide them with the kinds of interreligious awareness many in Lebanon lack. It is a fitting legacy for the spirit of dialogue and community that has defined Father Kozah's life.

"Now I am teaching seminarians—teaching the priests of tomorrow," Father Kozah says. "And I have to develop this spirit in them."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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