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Palestinian priest works to create understanding, forgiveness, unity
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the Feb. 8, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
On one of the gentle sloping hills of Galilee, Israel, in the city of Ibillin stands a different sort of school. Called the Mars Elias (Prophet Elias) Institute, the school welcomes students of any religion — Christian, Muslim, Jewish. It was founded by Father Elias Chacour, a Melkite Catholic priest and a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who hopes one day to see peace in his troubled country.
Father Chacour is a minority among a minority — a Palestinian Catholic, an Israeli citizen. “I bear within myself all the contradictions of the conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews,” he said during his talk Jan. 25 at St. Aloysius Church in Spokane. He has spent his life working as a “peace-builder, to stand up and do something....”
He has won several awards and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, he shares Israel’s Man of the Year honors with Shimon Peres, a former prime minister of Israel.
Father Chacour travels the world (11,000 miles, he said) with a message of peace, hope and forgiveness. He gave several talks in Spokane Jan. 25-28. His visit was sponsored by First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, whose pastors, Woody Garvin and Don Meekhof, had visited Father Chacour at the priest’s home in Galilee last May.
The priest’s goal is to broaden people’s understanding. Helping Israel does not necessitate hating Palestinians.
Father Chacour’s own experience of being driven from his home, an experience shared by many Palestinians, could easily have embittered him, turning him against his Jewish neighbors. In explaining his efforts to forgive, he came to the realization of a shared humanity. “I was born a baby, not a Christian,” he said. “We are all born babies.”
Christians in Israel make up a tiny fraction of the population in the country where Jesus Christ lived and their church was born. “Over the past 25 years,” Father Chacour said, “over 60 percent of the Palestinian Christians have left the country. Those who remain number 130,000.” Israel’s population is 5,842,000, mostly Jews and Muslims.
Father Chacour’s family could not be blamed if they had also moved elsewhere. Israel was made a nation in 1948, when the priest was eight years old. As the Jews began to resettle the country, they evacuated 460 Palestinian villages, forcing the residents to leave and reducing many of the villages to rubble. Many Palestinians left the country at that time, but many others moved into neighboring villages that were not destroyed. The Chacours, forced to leave their village of Biram, were among that group, and became refugees in their own country. Since they did not leave, they also became Israeli citizens.
He was ordained a priest in 1965, and his bishop sent him to the town of Ibillin “for 30 days and then we’ll decide what to do with you,” Father Chacour said. “Sometimes bishops have short memories since it’s now 36 years and I’m still there.” Ibillin (pronounced e-bi-leen) is near the big city of Haifa on the northern coast and is only about 15 miles from Nazareth. When Father Chacour came to Ibillin, it had few Christians and 4,000 inhabitants. Today the population is 8,500.
With their villages destroyed, the Palestinians lacked leaders for their communities, and education for Palestinian children ended with the eighth grade. One of Father Chacour’s first tasks was a drive to collect books for them. Then followed the founding of community centers with education and activities for young people. At the first summer camp, “we expected 500 children and 1,128 showed up.” One of their activities was to sleep outside under the olive trees. Father Chacour took advantage of that to remind the children that they are like the olive trees — “their roots go deep.”
A kindergarten was started and in the early 1980s, Father Chacour applied to the authorities for a permit to build a high school. His request was denied, but, he said, “I started building anyway,” on the hillside at Ibillin now called the Mount of Light. As expected, he was arrested, and he gained a familiarity with the Israeli judicial system. “It was an excellent way to build relationships with the judges in the courts.”
In 1986, when Father Chacour wanted to expand the school and build a gym, the story was much the same. He worked six years to get that building permit, “nearly reaching the point of despair.” Finally he enlisted the help of then U.S. Secretary of State Jim Baker, who intervened with the Israeli minister of education to get the document “in his hand which he delivered to me personally.”
A college with a Teachers’ Institute was added last year, and the Israeli minister of education came to visit. Later he asked Father Chacour if the school would admit former Israeli soldiers. “How can I do that? I remembered they are born babies. I had to strip away the uniforms and the guns...”
Now the school has 4,000 students and a Teachers’ Institute to which educators come in the summer. Arabs and Israelis, Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Jew, ages 14-50, study together, play sports together and learn that they can live together without conflict.
“I have to remind myself that we are all made in the image of God. When we look in the mirror each day, we should see what God has made so beautiful.”
Not only did God make us in his image, Father Chacour said, but also equal. The goal is that all the people who live in Israel can share the land in which their roots grow so deep.
Father Chacour’s grandparents and parents were Christians before him. “My grandparents heard God tell them to get up, to do something, to get their hands dirty and become peace-builders.” He has followed that call because, he said, “I am one of the men of Galilee who believes we can make a difference.”
He asked those hearing him for their help in making a difference, “to bridge the gap between the Israeli Jew and the Palestinian Arab. We need one more common friend. Will you stand in solidarity with us?”
Father Chacour said the road that led to his forgiveness of the Israelis for what they did to his family and his people was a long and difficult one. He tells that story in his book Blood Brothers. A second book is titled We Belong to the Land. The first book can be purchased at Kaufer’s Books and Auntie’s in Spokane, or other bookstores. The second book is in the process of being reprinted. Father Chacour has also written two other books which are not yet published.
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