MUSKEGON, Mich. — It sounds Biblical, but the story of the Catholic priest who converted the Muslim “leper” is from modern-day Lebanon.
“I found Lazarus: He lies at my gate.” So wrote Father Antonio Elfeghali on his “Spiritual Friendship” blog about a suffering boy he found in Lebanon.
Father Elfeghali didn’t walk by this Lazarus. Instead, he gave the boy friendship and a little money. And then he put him in touch with Liz Zagar in Muskegon, Mich., who took him into her home and found him expert medical advice, schooling and his first friends.
“Lazarus” is 10-year-old Karim Ahmad. He suffers from Olmsted’s syndrome, an extremely rare (fewer than 40 reported cases since 1927) leprosy-like genetic defect that shrinks and hardens the skin. When Father Elfeghali found him in February 2006, Karim’s feet oozed blood, he had no fingers, and his face was covered with insects and dark scabs.
Zagar had earlier become friends with Father Elfeghali at a retreat in Ann Arbor, Mich. When she saw his blog posts about Karim, she called the priest and asked if it would be possible to bring Karim to Michigan for better medical care. Father Elfeghali cleared it with Karim’s parents and Zagar set about raising money.
It didn’t take much publicity for generosity to take hold. The local newspaper ran a story about Karim and donations flooded in.
“There were a few $1,000 donors,” Zagar said, “but most of the money came from people donating $10 or $20.” She raised enough money to pay for Karim’s expenses and still had enough left over to send money to Lebanon to help Karim’s family.
Karim came to Michigan in July 2007. By the time he left in November, his condition had vastly improved. Dermatologists and other medical specialists donated enormous amounts of time to give Karim world-class treatment.
“There will be no cure,” Father Elfeghali said at a Mass last year for Karim, but by the time Karim left Michigan, he was wearing prosthetics and the painful conditions of his disease had been mitigated.
Lebanon is a country of religious villages.
“This is a Jewish town, this is a Christian town, this is a Muslim town,” Father Elfeghali would tell Zagar while they drove through Lebanon. Despite the religious conflict that sears the region, in many Lebanese villages the religious majority co-exists peacefully, even lovingly, with religious minorities.
So it is with the Ahmad family. They are Muslims, but they live in a Christian village.
“Karim was raised around Maronite Catholics,” said Father Elfeghali. “He learned about Jesus and Saydet Talle (which means Our Lady of the Hill, the patron of Deir El Kamar town). He saw his mother turning towards Mary every time she felt desperate of Karim’s condition. So the Zagars’ religious practices weren’t new to him.”
Within months after coming to Michigan — after living and attending Mass with the Zagars, after attending school (a first for Karim) at Muskegon Catholic Elementary School — Karim wanted to be Catholic.
“He knows Jesus is God, and I think he was longing for the Eucharist,” said the Zagars’ 23-year-old daughter Laura. “He is also devoted to Mary, which isn’t surprising. Muslims honor Mary as the mother of a great prophet. Now Karim honors her as the Mother of God.”
In October 2007, Karim was baptized and received first Communion and confirmation. Father Elfeghali was in Michigan at the time and performed the ceremonies. Because of the pain in his feet, Karim asked the Zagars’ daughter (“Mama Laura”) and their son David, 21, to carry him to the baptismal font.
“We never pressured Karim to convert, and when he made the decision, his parents blessed it,” said Zagar. She also thinks Karim’s parents and brother are leaning toward Catholicism, “but neither Father Antonio nor I push it.”
After Karim returned to his parents, Zagar went to Lebanon to visit him and meet his family. While there, she was confronted with a hard choice.
“Karim’s parents wanted to give him to me,” Zagar said. “They basically wanted me to adopt him. They thought he’d have a better life.”
Torn about what to do, she wanted the advice of one of the desert hermits that live in small homes carved from Lebanon’s mountains. “They are considered very holy and wise, and people come to seek their prayers and advice,” said Zagar. She met with a hermit recommended by Father Elfeghali. The hermit advised Zagar to leave Karim with his parents.
Despite the generous medical care he received during his visit, Zagar knew Karim still needed a lot more help. They ran out of time last year, but when Zagar visited Karim and his family in late 2007, it was decided that Karim would come back in 2008 ... this time for a full year.
Zagar raised Karim’s travel money, thanks in large part to St. Patrick and St. Francis Churches in Grand Haven, Mich., who dedicated their 2008 Holy Thursday offerings to the cause. In May 2008 Zagar said in an interview, “Karim can’t wait. He’s very excited to be coming back. He missed his family terribly while he was here the first time, but he didn’t want to leave.”
On June 18, he is expected to be nestled back into the Zagar home.
Eric Scheske is based in