The first three days of our journey were spent in Israel. We visited the Mount of the Beatitudes and the surroundings of the Lake of Tiberias, referred to in the Bible as the Sea of Galilee; Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus; and the house of St. Peter in Capernaum, which was used for community gatherings by the very first Christians.
It seems so simple and peaceful to build a church, but the political climate of that era was complex and violent, making the process extremely hazardous. The Christians had to be strong, determined and forgiving.
In a similar way, we encountered a brave man who as a child was forced with his family out of his village and became a refugee in the new Israel. Archbishop Elias Chacour is the Melkite Catholic leader for Haifa, Nazareth and Galilee. Our group spent a good two hours with him in Haifa where he explained the difficult life of Arab Palestinian Christians in Israel since its creation in 1948.
Most of the Arabs live in segregated villages where Israeli Jews and Arabs rarely connect. He told us he had to go to court over 35 times as a priest, just trying to construct a parish hall, schools and a gym. “I never understood why the authorities didn’t want us to succeed,” he said.
One of his projects, a school for Israeli children from all backgrounds — Jewish, Muslim and Arab Christian — has seen great success, but it is an exception in this complex place.
We were all very moved by Archbishop Chacour’s presentation. Before we parted ways, he shared copies of his books with us — Blood Brothers and Faith Beyond Despair, in which he describes his life in Israel and how peace is possible. A few days later, one of my fellow pilgrims, Corina, told me that she couldn’t put the book down. “It’s too good,” she said, “and so informative. I never knew about Arab Palestinian Christians living in Israel. It’s a must read.”
Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour poses with Velma Harasen, former national president of the Catholic Women’s League of Canada, and Carl Hétu, director of CNEWA Canada. (photo: CNEWA)