Palestine's New Bishop

a man of peace & action

As a priest and educator, the sixty-six-year-old Palestinian Elias Chacour has uncommon gifts, some inherited, others hard earned. Named by the Vatican and the Holy Synod of the Melkite Catholic Church in February to be the Greek Catholic archbishop of Galilee, he is the first Israeli citizen to be appointed to the position. He is also founder of the Mar Elias Educational Institutions (MEEI) in Ibillin, Israel, a school that specializes in practical engineering.

When Chacour was a child of eight, he and his family were evicted from their village of Biram in 1948. Soldiers of the newly constituted Israeli state told the Chacours that they would be able to return to their ancestral home in a few weeks. But shortly after that, the entire village was demolished for “security reasons.” Similar evictions continue in the occupied territories to this day.

In Gaza and the West Bank, it is often remarked-even by priests and educators-that politics is like daily bread. But Chacour redirects this observation. It is education, he insists, that is really “as important for us as Palestinians as the daily bread. Money and wealth can be lost. Land has been confiscated. Leadership has disappeared.” But education, which he describes as “the level of industry and understanding, the possibility to weigh and value things and go beyond the present situation, to be creative and inventive and to ask questions,” endures.

Chacour’s biography is replete with numerous international accolades and peace prizes-he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on three occasions. Despite his family’s losses, his parents taught him to seek reconciliation with the Israelis, not revenge. For the firebrand young Chacour, this did not come naturally. The turning point, he says, was when he fixed on Jesus Christ as his “champion,” a term he favors over “savior,” and when he concluded that the only way to peace was to educate Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children together, under one roof, to respect their own culture and one another’s.

Chacour speaks Hebrew. He holds a BA in philosophy and religious studies from the Sorbonne in Paris, and a degree in biblical verse and Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I first met him in Ibillin last April, and again in November when he gave the keynote address at a conference on Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut. He has been compared to Martin Luther King Jr., and in 1972 led Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze on a peaceful march through Jerusalem, seeking the right for Palestinians to return to their homeland. “Peace needs no more contemplators,” he says. “Peace needs actors.”

In the late 1970s, frustrated by his inability to hasten the peace process, Chacour decided to found a school that would foster a bipartisan change of heart. He was well aware of the dismal educational facilities available to Palestinians in the West Bank. With the infrastructure and social networks in disarray, only a handful of young Palestinians even entered high school. So he chose to build his school in Ibillin, near Nazareth, the site of his first pastoral appointment. When he arrived there in 1965, the town’s Christian population was bitterly poor, suspicious of a church they felt had abandoned them, and habitually at one another’s throats. Chacour loves to tell how one Palm Sunday he padlocked the church doors and told his surly flock either to start acting like Christians or to go ahead and kill one another-in which case he would perform their funerals gratis. When I heard him tell the story, doubtless for the umpteenth time, it was easy to understand why he had prevailed.

All leaders tout the importance of education and engaging the young. But nowhere is education more critical than in Palestine, notes Chacour, where half the population is below the age of fourteen. So he began his project by establishing a kindergarten, and today he leads an interfaith school that spans preschool through university and has some four thousand students and faculty. A tenth of the faculty is Jewish. Altogether, MEEI has six schools, including a school for gifted children and one that trains teachers for Arab children. Last fall, Chacour announced a new science and technology project with a Jewish company. The university offers a bachelor’s degree and is a branch of Indianapolis University, whose professors teach a third of classes via the Internet.

One of the things Chacour will miss most now that he is archbishop is maintaining his tradition of personally greeting the elementary school students at 7:15 each morning. He is known affectionately by them and other admirers as Abuna, Arabic for father. But though the bespectacled Chacour seems kindly and attentive, he has a rock-hard spine.

In A Man of Galilee, a documentary on Chacour televised last fall, a Muslim student remarks that she doesn’t feel she attends a Christian school since the emphasis is not solely on Christian faith but on respecting all religions and cultures. As Chacour likes to say, “I was born a baby and I became a Christian. All children are created in the image of God, which is why I devote my life to education.”

Resources at MEEI are always stretched thin. This year, the elementary school has 680 students but only twenty-one computers. To support the school, Chacour travels widely, repeating his personal story and soliciting support. His “Pilgrims of Ibillin” organization has members worldwide. Often his speeches rely on metaphor and illustrations taken from his life in occupied Palestine. None is more evocative than the story of Chacour’s ceaseless quest for building permits.

Whenever Palestinians attempt to build or to remodel, they must first secure a building permit from the Israeli authorities. It can take years to get one, if it happens at all. Out of frustration, some Palestinians go ahead and build without a permit, only to have their structures bulldozed and their property seized for violating regulations.

Chacour recounts the following story. In 1991, determined to finish his high school gymnasium, Chacour flew to Washington, D.C., and knocked at the house of then Secretary of State James Baker. Baker wasn’t home, but his wife happened to be hosting a Bible study group. When she lamented the loss of her group’s speaker, who was to discuss the Sermon on the Mount, Chacour stepped in. Not long after, Chacour got his permit. Later, Secretary Baker wrote the foreword to Chacour’s autobiographical first book, Blood Brothers.

Success stories like this are a powerful teaching tool among Palestinians, whose children grow up feeling powerless and angry. Since 1948, for endlessly debated reasons, Palestinians have been able to point to only a few exemplars of real progress. Abuna Elias Chacour has been one. By refusing to be subjugated yet resisting any resort to violence, he has enabled his students and his people to say with dignity: “I still dream.”

Following Chacour’s installation as archbishop in February, the students at the elementary school assembled to congratulate their Abuna and rushed to hug him. In a March letter to friends, he acknowledged concerns about how he would balance his new role with leading MEEI. “The responsibility is very complex,” he noted, “because an archbishop in this country is not only a religious leader for his flock but he is expected to be the leader of all the minorities. Since I am the first archbishop to be born, brought up, educated, and consecrated in Israel, there are so many expectations from the Jewish sector as well.”

Chacour then asked for more support, more prayers. “I am still Abuna, even though people call me archbishop,” he wrote. “I do have much more authority than before. I also have a deeper sense of responsibility toward creating the unity we so long have wanted through the respect of the differences that for so long we have feared.”

Published in the 2006-04-07 issue: 
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Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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