Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Archbishop Elias Chacour Works for Peace in the Middle East

He neither asks for money nor passes out donation envelopes after his speeches. He neither wants pity for his situation nor accolades for his work. He speaks to anyone who will listen and his mission is to encourage others “get their hands dirty for peace.”

“I am a Palestinian, a proud Palestinian, a Palestinian Arab,” said Archbishop Elias Chacour. “My mother language is Arabic. I am also a Christian. I am a Palestinian Arab Christian—and a citizen of Israel. This adds confusion to those who think that Palestinians are Muslims and that they are bloodthirsty people born to violence.” He opens his coat and exposes his clean, grayish-white shirt. “See, I have no bombs.”

“Slow down your prejudices and your preconceived ideas,” he said. “Even though my identity looks like a lot of contradictions, take it on as a new challenge. I am here to prove to all that there IS a way to create unity with a respect for diversity that can co-exist in the Holy Land.”

Archbishop Chacour is a stout, animated man. His short, dark, spiked hair and long, white chin beard frame his wide smile and flashing bright eyes. He can listen quietly or switch to speaking vociferously about Palestine in a split second, whatever the occasion requires. Except for his black suit and clerical collar, he might otherwise be lost in a crowd. As I observed him in a crowd of 500 during the annual Peace Week held at Western Michigan University, it soon became obvious how this “homeless Palestinian” was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize (1986, 1989, 1994) and awarded the World Methodist Peace Prize (1994) and the Japanese Niwano Peace Prize (2001). In March he was named Archbishop of Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church in the Holy Land.

As a newly-ordained priest with the St. George Melkite Catholic Church in 1965, Elias Chacour was sent to Ibillin, a small Arab village in Galilee where Christians and Muslims have lived together peacefully for many generations. He was only supposed to stay in Ibillin a month but “bishops have short memories and mine forgot that he put me there,” he said.

As his first task he chose to repair the mosque in town. Now, 42 years later, his work has evolved into planting untold orchards of peace and justice by educating the children of the Galilee region where 50 percent of the Arab population is under 14 years old and 75 percent is below 28 years old. “My life’s meaning has been to give hope to my people,” said the Archbishop whose flock affectionately calls “Abuna.”

The Archbishop’s ministry in the education field began when he collected and distributed old books. He found that books helped the children “leave” their poor environment a little while. Eventually this project led him to build the town’s first public library. He further sought to make the children’s lives a little better by sponsoring summer camps. In the first year 5,000 children registered from 30 villages all over Galilee. The Archbishop finds that he can never reject anyone even though he isn’t always sure how he can accommodate everyone.

“When I pray and abandon myself to God’s hands, I give inspiration to others.” He invited 10 mothers from among the campers of 30 villages to help prepare sandwiches and drinks for the children—and ended up with 300 mothers—most of them Muslims.

“It was a beautiful community,” he said. “We Christians don’t have a monopoly of doing good. We don’t have exclusive control of the Holy Spirit.” And then he added: “Even God is not a Christian.”

Archbishop Chacour is a sly, patient man, traits he perhaps developed when he built the area’s new high school. In 1981 he realized that only 18 girls were enrolled in high school, so he decided to erect a building and encourage more girls—as well as boys—to go to school. The Israeli government, however, denied him a building permit, so he decided to build the school anyway.

Three months later the police tried to stop him from continuing his building project and he subsequently went to court. The judge scheduled his hearing for Sunday at 10 a.m. but the Archbishop said that as a Catholic priest he didn’t go to court on Sundays. The judge postponed the case for six months. Then the Archbishop received another letter announcing a new court date for Sunday at 10 a.m. Again he refused to appear and the judge again postponed the hearing for another six months. This went on six more times and the high school was completed—and never touched by the Israeli military. Established in 1982 with 80 students, the high school now has over 1,100 students.

“I invite you,” said Archbishop Chacour in a moral-of-the-story tone, “never condemn anyone to be good or bad. There is evil in every nation and in every human being. There is also good. Choose what to enhance. There is good in every human being and it is stronger than evil.”

Archbishop Chacour’s success in Ibillin has gone way beyond his own expectations but his belief that educating the young gives them hope and skills for the future motivates him. Before the high school was built, Archbishop Chacour founded the The Myriam Bawardi Kindergarten in 1970, which enrolls 220 students. The technical college (founded in 1994) has over 800 students. A regional teacher training center (founded in 1996) that works with teachers of Arab children throughout Galilee enrolls 1,000. An elementary school started in 2001 adds one class per year starting with grades one to four. About 130 students were initially enrolled. The school for gifted children was formed in 1998 with 120 students. All of these schools fall under the Mar Elias Educational Institutions (MEEI) where children and young adults of several faith traditions learn to live and work together in peace.

Archbishop Chacour insists that every child in Galilee is admitted to school and no one is refused because he or she is poor or unacceptable due to his or her religion or ethnicity. He doesn’t even need to recruit students! The MEEI schools currently enroll 4,500 students where 65 percent of them are Muslims and the rest are Christians and Jews. As a result, all students are invited to integrate themselves with their neighbors and no one attempts to assimilate them to any particular religion or creed.

Archbishop Chacour said that living out this mission of openness is not automatic and he relates this point with a story about the time Jewish children started coming to the school. He was glad they were there but he feared trouble might erupt. So on the first day he ordered some buses and took the students to Mount Carmel for a field trip. By lunch time the kids all forgot they were Jews and Palestinians and instead exchanged addresses, e-mails and telephone numbers.

“This is the only campus in Israel that has kindergarten through university and it is the country’s only private institution,” said Archbishop Chacour. “We teach the spirituality of the Sermon on the Mount to all the students and they all live and work together.”

He said that children care little about labels and after a while, they don’t focus on each other’s religious or ethnic identity. “My only wish is that they sit together around desks and write the future of their children. It can’t be an isolated future for them. This is vital for human unity and dignity. Besides, they were all born in the image and likeness of God.”

The next MEEI project is expected to bring together Arab-Israelis (Muslim and Christian) with Jewish Israelis. Then, Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Jewish students will be joined by Arab students from the neighboring countries of Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. As the final phase of the plan unfolds, international students from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe will be admitted.

It would seem an impossibility to build schools in a land of scarce resources, but the breadth of the mission and the dream of peaceful coexistence among Jews and Muslims drives Archbishop Chacour. However, he is quick to admit that he has not accomplished these projects alone. Rather, he has been able to enlist many, many people to help him. For example, one group actively responsible for providing subsidies for student scholarships and building projects is the Pilgrims of Ibillin based in Livermore, California. He also obtained the help of former Secretary of State James Baker.

“I learned that the shortest way to Jerusalem is through Washington, D.C.,” said the Archbishop. When he was having trouble getting a building permit for the high school, Archbishop Chacour decided to visit then-Secretary of State James Baker. It was just after the Gulf War in 1991. He simply went to his house and knocked on the door. The secretary’s wife, Suzan, answered.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Another man from Galilee,” he answered.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Sorry, we men from Galilee never make appointments, we only make appearances.”

Mrs. Baker hesitated letting Archbishop Chacour in but she found it equally difficult to turn him away. She brought him to the kitchen and offered him a drink of iced tea. He told her he needed help with the building permit so she also gave him her husband’s office phone number. She was about to excuse herself because she was holding a Bible Study in her living room when he asked her what her group was studying. It was the Sermon on the Mount. He then asked her what language they were using. Of course, it was English.

“I pity you but good luck,” said the Archbishop who knows 11 languages and speaks Arabic, Hebrew, English, French, German and Aramaic fluently. His remark puzzled Mrs. Baker so she asked if he could help the group understand this Bible passage better. For the next two hours Archbishop Chacour sat in Mrs. Baker’s living room with some “gentle, loving ladies” and explained that the first eight verses of the Sermon had a different meaning in the Aramaic language of Jesus from the “be happy attitudes” the women had been taught in English. It went something like: “Straighten up yourself, go ahead and do something. Get your hands dirty if you are hungry and thirsty for justice.”

A week later Mrs. Baker asked the Archbishop to return to her house so that they could pray together. Eventually the two struck up a friendship that also included her husband—and which has lasted over a decade. When the Archbishop wanted to build a college (he was concerned that the young Christians were leaving Galilee and creating a brain drain of skilled professionals, managers, and craftsmen), it was James Baker who helped the Archbishop connect with the University of Indianapolis to establish a UI branch campus in Israel. In July 2003, after two and a half years of exchanging 264 letters with the Israeli government, the Mar Elias Campus was accredited by the North Central Association and accepted by the Council of Higher Education in Israel. In one month 126 students—Arabs, Christians and Israelis—applied for the first semester that began on October 21, 2003. The university has three departments: Environmental Science and Chemistry, Computer Science, and Communication and the Archbishop is looking to add more.

The MEEI schools employ a 290-person faculty including 100 people with Ph.D.s and 92 with master’s degrees. Twenty-eight faculty members are Jewish. Archbishop’s own nephew, who recently earned a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from Western Michigan University, also signed on to teach at the college after turning down a lucrative career with the U.S. Marine Corps. “I promised him that he would not make a lot of money with us but that he would receive much love. For four years now he has been there.”

Archbishop Chacour paused a moment at the podium and closed his eyes as if to contemplate. “If these schools did not exist, where would all the faculty be today? Certainly anywhere but Palestine. This gives me hope and courage and the drive to continue despite all the problems.”

Archbishop Chacour was moved to silence once more. He confessed that after he obtained accreditation for the college, he fell on his knees in his office and prayed: “Lord, now you can take your servant in peace.” Instead, he felt called to establish the Mar Elias Peace Center, which is slated to play a vital role in the schools’ local and international outreach programs and to serve as a peace research center. English has been adopted as its language of instruction.

Although anyone would agree that these accomplishments are astounding, Archbishop Chacour remains modest and faith-filled. “You are called to become God-like, not to be our size,” he said. “We must set God free from our concepts and poor understanding. God is Great!”

After speaking for nearly an hour, the Archbishop made a plea to his audience.

“I believe in you. You can make a difference. You love to make a difference. You are called to make a difference. On behalf of all Palestinian children, I beg you,” he repeated, “I beg you to be in touch with the Jews you know and to continue giving friendship and sympathy to them and to respect them as human beings. They need this more than anyone during these times of big decision-making. Ask them to be more reasonable in their perceptions of Palestinians and not to be automatic enemies of them. And, know, too, that if you are friends with Jews that that does not mean that you are automatically at enmity with Palestinians.

“If taking our side, however, means that you accept everything we do and you become an enemy of the Jews, then we do not need your friendship. For us to find one more enemy in this horrible situation that has to stop is not what we need. What we need is one more common friend. Can you do that? Do you have the courage? Decide for yourself—and get your hands dirty for peace and justice. You can do it!”

Archbishop Chacour received wild applause and a standing ovation but he reacted by just standing at the podium with his head bowed and his eyes closed. He was praying. When the applause ceased, he spoke again: “Don’t applaud for me but for a corner of your own conscience that is awakened.”

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