On his side: Palestinian priest builds peace, not barriers in Mideast

Kevin Spurgaitis

When “exclusively interpreted” by both extremists and entire nations, religion can be the most dangerous weapon against humanity,” a prominent Palestinian scholar charged last month, as a tenuous Mideast truce resumed.

“Only together, we are stronger than the storm of fanaticism and exclusivity … in order to enhance the dignity and the rights of human beings, and provide everyone with a homeland and shelter from any per secution,” said Abuna (Father in Arabic) Elias Chacour, of the Melkite (Greek Catholic) Church, an Eastern Byzantine institution in communion with Rome. He spoke at Toronto’s Tyndale University College & Seminary in May–a part of his lecture tour, “Beyond Barriers: Building for Peace in Israel,” sponsored by the Mennonite Church of Canada.

Chacour, an international peace and reconciliation figure, has devoted himself to the often hard-pressed, long-awaited resolution between Middle Eastern Arabs and Jews. A three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Melkite priest has become an ambassador for non-violence in Israel and around the world. In March 1994, he received the prestigious World Methodist Peace Award, which has also been presented to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the late Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat.

Today, the 65-year-old best-selling author continues to provide professional teacher training in the small Arab-Israeli village of Ibillin, near Nazareth in Galilee. His Mar Elias Educational Institutions (MEEI) employs more than 270 faculty and staff, and serves an estimated 3,300 students. MEEI’s mission: “to help bring about reconciliation in a land of strife,” by encouraging students to value their heritage and strengthen connections with their cultures and communities. Students at the school are prepared for life-long learning and service to these same areas.

“It seems that sometimes people are obsessed with peace. They want to talk peace. They want to build peace. They want to argue peace. And only war comes out,” he said.

“When people talk peace, they mean to maintain the status quo, because they are on the ‘good side,’ and they don’t want to lose the privileges they have –the comfortable life. But when you visit Third World countries, you will rarely hear people speaking about peace. They would rather speak about human rights, justice, survival, dignity and self-esteem.”

According to Chacour, peace and security must include justice and integrity. “Today our political leaders say ‘God is with us. And whoever is not with us is against us.’ They are nurturing a culture of death, suspicion and fear. If you justify violence and terror to your friends and normalize it against your enemy, you are becoming one more enemy. And we don’t need one more enemy.”

He charged that Jews and Palestinians have produced enough martyrs, along with widows, orphans and thousands of mentally and physically challenged persons, during their conflict with each other.

“We should talk a little less about peace and break the ground for widened relations with religious groups and nations–accepting the other as someone who is needed for one’s own definition of self, and going beyond tolerance towards willful acceptance,” Chacour said.

‘Israel emigrated to my country’

Although identifying himself as a Palestinian-Arab, he concedes that he is still an Israeli citizen. “Israel is an entity that is 57-years-old and that makes me older than Israel. I did not immigrate into Israel when it was created; it was Israel that came and emigrated to nay country and changed its name. And I had to accommodate–find a way out and a way of life. I began to be a part of the scattered nation of the Middle East.”

Born in 1939 in the village of Biram, Upper Galilee, he was raised by a predominantly Palestinian Christian family. By the age of eight, he said he experienced the tragedy of his people head-on, when he was evicted–along with his entire village–by authorities in the fledgling state of Israel. He became a deportee and refugee in the country of his Palestinian forefathers–granted citizenship in Israel when it was finally founded in 1948. Seventeen years later, during his pastoral work, Chacour witnessed the lack of educational opportunities for Palestinian youth.

“We have been the tolerated minority inside Israel. And we revolted and we’re still revolting against this labelling of us as a minority … This is who I am. This is where I live.”

Chacour, who hosts hundreds of pilgrims on fact-finding missions in Ibillin, maintained his birth in the Middle East was no “providential arrangement.” Nonetheless, he takes responsibility for what happens there, because of its importance as the cradle of the three monotheistic religions–the place where millions of worshippers like to go and follow in the footsteps of the prophets Jesus, Moses or Mohammad.

“One of the major attitudes we are developing in the Middle East, is one of unity within the sociopolitical and racial diversity that is there. Is this not possible?” he asked.

“(Palestinians) are still looking for a way to overcome the status of minority and tolerance to the status of acceptance and partnership. We are not yet there, but we are working daily to find a way to be integrated into the state of Israel, and to build the state and future we want together.”

Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 Palestinians face the prospect of losing their homes during large-scale demolitions of the eastern sector of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem municipality claims it wants to convert the area into a national park, because of the site’s biblical and archaeological significance. However, Israeli human rights campaigners and lawyers charge it is an effort to reduce the Arab population, while strengthening the Jewish settlements of East Jerusalem, which Palestinians have earmarked as the Capital of a future Palestinian state.

Recently, U.S. President George W. Bush promised US$50 million to the Palestinian Authority, for housing construction in the Gaza Strip, according to the Associated Press. Following the scheduled withdrawal of Israelis from the region in August, Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas is expected to receive aid packages approved by the U.S. Congress, aimed at helping him moderate Palestinian forces–those characterized by suicide bombers. However, according to Chacour, what Israel direly needs is a sign of hope. And it will not come from religious or political leaders, he said.

” … Faith does not only mean faith in God. It’s easy to have faith in God. It’s much more difficult to have faith in your neighbour. It’s much more difficult to believe your neighbour is the most beautiful God has created, without an inner conviction that you can make a difference in this world.

“How much do we believe in each other and do we believe in the goodness that is in every human being,” asked Chacour, who said he is more impressed with the faith of non-believers, pagans and people who do not want to claim any prophet to be theirs.

“The question is: are we on the side of God? And that’s where we fail; we create our own God and pretend that the creator is on our side … It’s not important that God is on your side. God is always on our side.”

Chacour continued: “… We are too eager to build walls, while reducing ourselves and others into pieces. We need someone to mend these pieces together again. We need to keep the faith alive and look for better relations between Jews and Palestinians–not in speaking about the need for peace, but in speaking about the vital need to recognize each other’s right to live, enjoy life and be free.”

COPYRIGHT 2005 Catholic New Times, Inc.