Father Elias Chacour (photo: Michael Healy)
Palestinian students of the Prophet Elias School in Ibillin in Galilee “love” to attend classes and find it torturous when they cannot, says Father Chacour. These students are studying English. (photo: Michael Healy)
The academic careers of three high school students in Bethlehem remain suspended while their school is closed during the current uprising. 938 schools with 339,600 students in the West Bank were closed indefinitely. (photo: Gerald Ring)
Children of the village of Ibillin start their schooling at the Catholic nursery school. (photo: Michael Healy)
In a land where rhetoric is a powerful force in reaching hearts and minds, Father Elias Chacour speaks with a directness which is certain to be heard. A man of action and faith, he is a clear voice of Palestinian Christian fidelity in the jumble of religion and politics in the Holy Land. He speaks best by doing what needs to be done.
Meeting him at the school he founded in the small village of Ibillin in the hills of the upper Galilee, one knows that this person does not suffer easy questions gladly. He has important business to be about. He makes time, though, to speak about the school, Palestinian students, and what he teaches.
The only dream we have is to give the highest education to our children. This is the thirst and hunger we have, he says. Palestinian students share that dream. They love to attend school and find it torturous when they cannot, he says.
Five hundred students commute from 18 different villages in Galilee and the Golan Heights to lbillins hillside school. Over half the students are female, and 65 percent of the student body is Muslim.
I built it in 1982 without a building permit, he says. He was creating facts so it would be done, thereby changing any debate. (Israelis coined the phrase when they began building settlements on Arab land in the occupied territories.) A year after the school was built, he got the permit.
Father Chacour thinks education is central to solving the conflicts between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land. In this time of cruel circumstances, when every day we have so many martyrs killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we try to teach that the most important thing is not to throw a stone or to have a machine gun, or to turn over the roles [of oppressor and oppressed], but to change the real situation.
He has been addressing the real situation in the Holy Land since the Sabra and Shatila massacres drew him back to Galilee. He was in West Germany then and beginning what could have been a comfortable academic life. But the brutal slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian men, women, and children challenged him as a Palestinian and as a Christian.
When he heard of those deaths in the refugee camps in Lebanon and wondered what to do, he recalled his mothers words: Be strong, Elias. What you do matters. Especially for the young ones. He decided to return to Galilee to continue the long, slow labor of teaching young people the treasures of the Sermon on the Mount as the way to point them toward true peace.
He recognized that a comfortable life away from his homeland and blind to its pain would betray his commitments to God and to the Palestinian people. He wrote that he belonged back in the place where villages and churches were being reunited, where schools and community centers and spirits were being built up, where, amid the terrible noise of violence I could hear the whispers of the Man of Galilee, saying, Behold, I make all things new.
Today, the school has a reputation as a model school among Jews and Arabs one of the best in Galilee, he says. Now he is building a community college. He sees an urgent need for a technological branch, to give more possibilities for our students to choose and to use their skills to earn a living without being dependent on Jewish industry or becoming cheap laborers.
Education and vocational training will play major roles in the future of the Palestinians in the Holy Land. Father Chacour notes that 75 percent of Arabs here are under age 28; 50 percent are under 14 years old. He says, The future of the relations with the Jews, the future of war God forbid or peace depends on the quality of education we give to these 50 percent.
Yet, when schools are closed, students go out and pick up a stone. He calls the policies which leave students with this option absurd.
Father Chacour hopes people who want to contribute to the resolution of the conflict in the Holy Land encourage Palestinian initiatives for self-reliance and for education, as well as with economic and social projects.
Help us help ourselves, he says, to use all the human capital and power all the guts we have. He feels it is important that Palestinians know they are supported in these efforts by friends who are abroad.
I would love to see a committee or organization adopting one section of the school for example, the library, or gym, or one technological branch, or carpentry, or computer science, he says. These educational and vocational programs let students become one communty which accepts their multiple identities and pluralistic faith, which is very important, he says.
Father Chacour has long worked for reconciliation and respect among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He points out our real identity beneath the labels of Palestinians, Americans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We were born children of God, in His image, and all the rest has been added. If it obstructs our real identity, it should be thrown away, even if it is religion. But if religion helps us to rediscover the beauty of our identity and the origins of our humanity, then this religion should be blessed.
But reconciliation between people of different faiths does not come easily. He says, Human beings can go beyond the labels of religions and confessions, but you have to prepare a certain ground for them to feel secure with their differences and to accept them as different. Telling others Im better than you is not a basis for dialogue and mutual respect, he says.
The Melkite priest seeks reconciliation in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis based on the same mutual respect. To speak out in public for this reconciliation on the basis, not of having peace to hell with peace but on the basis of implementing justice and righteousness, so that peace and security might become something possible. Otherwise, we are speaking out about a Pax Romano that says to the slave: Be happy, my slave; I am happy enough to be your lord.
Although he always speaks to the point, he does not propose a political solution to the long conflict. I want to keep the primary focus of my life on human beings and on my being a priest, he says. But still I speak about the dignity and the human rights of both the Jews and the Palestinians.
Father Chacour looks for the end of the conflict and its absurd bloodshedding that is going on for 40 years. He does not see negotiations between Israel and Jordan ending the conflict. Peace has to be done with the other part of the conflict, the Palestinians. This should be said unequivocally, very clearly, if we want to help ease the situation and find a solution, he says.
What can people in the United States do to help end the conflict which continues to take lives? First, if you dare, speak out. But you might be harrassed. And if you are not harrassed, you will never enjoy the resurrection.
He continues: Those who have a living conscience must speak out for the interests of the Jews and for the interests of the Palestinians. He believes that Palestinians and Jews must accept that we are either doomed to die together or to live together. There is no way out.
He points out that he dedicated Blood Brothers to his brothers and sisters, the Jews who died in Dachau and the Palestinians who died in Tel-azzaatar, Sabra, and Shatila refugee camps. He calls all of them victims of the same tragedy, the same holocaust, the same barbarian treatment when you establish yourself as the supreme authority on earth and you have nobody to judge you.
At the end of that book, those slaughters of innocents looked him in the eye: If I simply allowed time to sift its dust over these latest deaths, I would be like those who had ignored the sufferings of the Jews for centuries, or like those who had turned their backs on my own people. Like those others, I had been trying to find the easy life of blindness to pain.
He has embraced a difficult life. Father Chacours efforts continue the necessary task of taking the blinders off people of conscience so they too might recognize and respond to the pain of the human family, especially as the violence flares in the Holy Land today. This man of Galilee enjoys his long, slow labor of making peace by teaching Palestinian youth the treasures of the Sermon on the Mount. He offers them the hope, courage, and skills needed to build a community of justice and righteousness here in the hills where Jesus preached.
Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East. This article is based on an interview with Father Chacour in Ibillin by Katerina K. Whitley in March of this year.