“My peace is my gift to you,” Jesus said to his followers. But this Easter the land where Jesus once walked, the land of today’s Israelis and Palestinians, is anything but peaceful. In this exclusive St. Anthony Messenger interview, we talk with Archbishop Elias Chacour, whose archeparchy (archdiocese) in northern Israel includes the land of Galilee, where he grew up. Archbishop Chacour was at the University of Dayton in Ohio last year to attend a graduation of family members and to receive an honorary degree for creating the first Arab university in Israel. Now 73, he remains a busy man! He had just flown from across the world and would be returning in just two days to attend a dinner with the president of Israel.
Chacour’s painful childhood story is documented in several books he has written, which have been translated into 20-plus languages. His most famous is Blood Brothers. We started our interview with a bit of that personal story, because it is such a key to his life’s work as a peacemaker. He tells about his youth passionately, in painful tones. As he continues, though, settling into a friendly, unassuming style, it is clear why he has been nominated three times, in the 1980s and ’90s, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Once a remarkable parish priest who built a pioneering, inter-ethnic school system against all odds (see Page 16), he was named to lead the church in his region, as archbishop, in 2005.
Q: I know that Biram, near Nazareth, is the village of your youth, one of the many villages from which Palestinians were expelled after World War II. What happened there?
A: Where I was born was a village in North Galilee, a Christian village. All the inhabitants were Christians and Catholics. In 1948 we were deported, evicted from our homes by the military and promised that we would be out for only two weeks. But the two weeks did not end; now it’s 64 years later. We were reduced to refugees in our own country, to deportees in our region. We took refuge in a nearby village
where some houses had been emptied. And we lived there, waiting for the time to return. And the time did not come. We wonder if it will ever come.
Q: So it’s not a dead issue to you, all these years later?
A: It will never be a dead issue, as long as we are living! And those who ought to understand our position most are the Jews. They say, “We were here 2,000 years ago; we are returning.” We say, “We have been here that 2,000 years, but 64 years ago, we were deported by violence and we will return.”
Archbishop in the Land of Jesus
Q: To be the archbishop in the land where Jesus walked is quite a feeling, isn’t it?
A: Yes, spiritually it is quite a feeling. Foremost in my understanding is Christ as the risen Lord who left us with an empty tomb. I want this story to be known everywhere because the risen Lord is the key to reconciliation.
But practically it’s as if you are condemned to death, participating in the suffering of Christ. Christians in the Holy Land as well as in all of the Middle East were always a persecuted minority, since their birth. The Jews were very brutal against the Christians in the beginning until the year 163. They were a factor which brought Christians to the Roman arena to be massacred.
One thing we have decided, though: We do not want to be stuck in the mud of the past. We will remember the past, but we don’t even want to live in the hope for a better future. We want to live in the present time doing our task and preparing a future, not alone — but, rather, Jews and Palestinians together.
Q: You’re a widely known leader among Palestinians. How do you work toward some kind of peaceful, just solution to the divisions in the Holy Land?
A: You know what? I try to be a realistic man. I can do hardly anything to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But what I can do surely is to create relations of mutual respect and friendship between a Jew and a Palestinian. It’s so humble, so modest. So I try to inspire the Jews and to convince them that they need to trust, because we are not their enemies. We are their victims. And we don’t want to stay their victims. We want to stop this victimizing and to start being partners — to build up this country together.
Defining the Middle East Conflict
Q: As history has played out in your region, there’s a lot of conflict between the Arabs and the Jews, we all know —
A: May I not agree with you! There’s no conflict between the Arabs and the Jews. There’s a very serious conflict between the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews. Let us just define the problem if we want to have some solution in the future.
Q: So why do you make that more focused distinction?
A: It’s very simple. Israel does not have any problem with Jordan. They have peace with Egypt. They can go almost — as they went to Qatar, to Kuwait — everywhere. And what do Arabs have against Jews in America? The problem is between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs.
The Israeli Jews say, “This land is ours. We have lived away for 2,000 years; we are coming to take our home back.” I don’t wish that the black people in America would say that to you, the white people, and they would kick you back to your origin. It’s 200 years; that’s a long time.
But here is 2,000 years. The Palestinians say, “This is our ancestral land. We know you were kicked out by a Roman emperor, but not by Palestinians. We witness that. We’re sorry. Your coming back here is welcome, but with us. We cannot say welcome without us.”
Q: So the Israeli Jewish government has not played fair, has it?
A: No, they played only for their selfish national interest. They have no friends. They have interests only.
Q: When I went to Israel and Palestine with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency, we traveled around. We saw the wall being built; saw how the Israeli government is occupying more and more of the area. What do you make of that?
A: Well, I make nothing of that. It complicates our life. And it overcomplicates our dream to have a real dialogue of partnership between Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land. It makes life a little bit complicated, if not impossible, for Palestinians who are in that Palestinian territory — not for me who is a citizen of Israel (second-class citizen, but citizen).
Q: I know that Palestinians have had a choice to live outside the territories and become Israeli citizens, and that your home was always outside the territories. Why are you a second-class citizen?
A:Well, it’s not because I want to be a second-class citizen! [He laughs.] I accept that I have a sense of dignity and a sense of self-esteem as much as Jewish Israelis, if not more. But, you know in these regions of the world — and no one is an exception — might is right. As if with might you can wrong the right and right the wrong! And that’s exactly what happens to the Israelis and Palestinians. The competition is between who is mightier to decide the rules of the game. That might bring a cease-fire, but that can’t bring peace.
Q: There’s so much American money that has gone into supporting Israel. Do
you harbor resentment against America for that?
A: No. I don’t harbor resentment. I regret the lack of integrity of Americans because I’m not against you being friends with the Jews, even with fanatical Jews who hate us. Be with them. Stand on their side. Give them all your wealth — I don’t care. But do not reduce your generosity to become onesided for them, against us. In your country we are called terrorists. I am not a terrorist. I don’t accept any kind of violence against any human being — verbal or physical. But I am the terrorist for you. I hope one day you will realize that I am, rather, the terrorized.
An Easter Message
Q: Do you think the Christian community in the Holy Land will survive? It seems that it becomes smaller and smaller as people give up and leave.
A: My friend, the Christian community in Palestine survived already 2,000 years of continuing persecution. We shall survive. We shall continue to live despite awesome problems. Jesus Christ was crucified and he survived. My forefathers were all persecuted, put to death, and we survived. We continue to survive.
Life is simple, you know. Life is not what bullets shall make it. At the grassroots remain individuals who can pray together, who are acquainted together. Jews come to my home like my Palestinian
friends come. They are welcome as well as my brothers and my relatives. I greet them, I salute them, I love them; we agree to disagree agreeably. At least this is big progress.
Q: So how do you maintain peacefulness in your own person?
A: Well, it’s not that easy sometimes when you face daily problems of brutalism. You are shocked. But if you want to consider deeply what forgiveness means, it means you refuse to be corrupted with hatred. If you decide that, how can you accept to be degraded?
Q: So part of it is understanding that the hatred is ruining yourself?
A: Absolutely! It’s so destructive. And besides that, we have an example of someone who really forgave in the most cruel moment of his life. And you know who he is: Jesus Christ on the cross! He could have cursed those who crucified him. He could have killed them immediately. But he would have lost all his message. He did not. He said, “Father, please!”
He was pleading to the Father, “Please don’t forget they are crazy people that don’t know what they do. Forgive them.” And this for me is the challenge of being Christian in Israel. Can I love the Jews truly and without any hidden agenda, or not? I remember all the bad that was done to me. And because of that I need to show them that I don’t hate them.
Q: Are you able to do that?
A: Yes, with the grace of God, yes.
Building Peace on Desktops
In 1982 then-Father Elias Chacour looked out on an abandoned, snake-infested hill, “Ogre Hill,” in his parish in Ibillin, a village near Nazareth, Galilee, and decided, “Here will be a Catholic elementary school where students of all faiths can learn that peace is possible.” He was “so naive,” he told a filmmaker in 2011. “But sometimes naive people can achieve miracles because of their naivete.” The Mar Elias schools, which now include schools for children of all ages, have grown to be on the top-10 schools list in all Israel. We discussed them during our Dayton interview.
He describes how he, displaced by Jewish settlers, took a stand for peace by building the schools. “Well, it’s my life project,” he says in his calm, reassuring tone. “It’s a story of love, my love for the Jews and for the Palestinians. I always dreamed of a way to bring together Jews and Palestinians in the same area and
under the same roof. Then they could consider together the dangers that threaten them and the hope which lies ahead of them if they join hands.”
The mixed-ethnicity schools, composed of Catholics, Muslims, Jews and members of the Druze religion, have an enrollment of 4,500 children who come to, in Chacour’s words, “study together, to learn together, to search together, to hope together.” Now known as the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, they include a kindergarten, high school, technical college, teacher training center and a school for gifted students.
It was an uphill struggle to build the schools in a political environment of distrust. Although many Palestinians living outside the Palestinian Territory are Israeli citizens, the Israeli government fears mixing the ethnic groups. “We had many problems, mainly problems of getting building permits for the schools.” He made a difficult choice, he says, “to go against the law.” Until his 2006 appointment as archbishop required him to move to the nearby city of Haifa, he was constantly being called into court for violating building restrictions — 37 times, he says.
“I really don’t care. I’m sorry that I had to turn around the law. At one time in 1991, I had to ask your former secretary of state, James Baker, to intervene in order to have a building permit for a gymnasium. And he did. And that’s how we got the building permit.”
He describes his schools foremost as Catholic schools: “We give huge importance to our Christian, Catholic values,” he says. “Because of that, we cannot accept to be encapsulated, isolated, alone.” And that is the key to his life’s work. He rolled out the welcome mat to Jews and Muslims, who came because his schools were the best in the area. “So now we have 60 percent of our students who are Muslims. In the year 2000 we had 82 Jewish children. On the faculty, out of 250, you have 32 Jewish professors.” Although others might say he is heroic, he eschews that word. He would say he’s just doing what a Christian should do.
Franciscans in the Holy Land
The Franciscans have a special role as caretakers of the sites sacred to Christianity in the Holy Land. They were given that role a century after St. Francis himself had gone to plead peace with the 13th-century Muslim ruler of much of the eastern Mediterranean. Today care of the sites is provided by a special Franciscan province, a custody, whose work is supported by the Roman Catholic Church. The annual Good Friday collection in this country and elsewhere supports that work. Visit myfranciscan.orgfor more about this Franciscan ministry.