OTTAWA, Ontario (CNS) — Years ago, Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour flew to Washington, D.C., to make an unannounced visit to the home of then-Secretary of State James Baker.
The archbishop of Haifa, Israel, was having trouble getting a government-issued building permit to expand a school, a problem that had repeated itself many times over the years as he built schools and summer camps for impoverished Christian and Muslim villagers.
To his surprise, Baker’s wife, Susan, answered the door because she was expecting a group of women for a Bible study, Archbishop Chacour told an Oct. 21 conference on The Future of Christianity in the Middle East.
She invited him into the kitchen for a glass of iced tea, explained her husband was not at home and added she was about to start a discussion of the Eight Beatitudes with the 20 ladies in her living room.
She ended up inviting the archbishop to lead the Bible study for her, the archbishop recalled. He spent the next two hours explaining the beatitudes to the women, noting they are about following Jesus to the cross, not “be-happy attitudes” as some described them. He said he also told the women to convince their husbands “to get their fingers dirty” in the work of building peace and justice in the Middle East.
That unannounced visit led to a friendship between the Bakers and the archbishop that not only got Archbishop Chacour the building permit he sought, but also eventually brought the Bakers to visit his archdiocese as “an act of solidarity.”
“Are you ready when you visit the Holy Land to make that act of solidarity?” he asked the audience at St. Paul University’s Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, which co-sponsored the conference with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Archbishop Chacour said anyone expecting him to be for or against Palestinians or Jews “will be disappointed.”
A renowned peace-builder, the archbishop described himself as a Palestinian, an Arab, a Christian and an Israeli citizen who is proud of each one of his identities.
But he said Christians all over the Holy Land are seeking to leave and find opportunities elsewhere. He urged visitors to get out of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher — a prominent pilgrimage spot in Jerusalem — and go to Galilee to understand Jesus as a man of the resurrection and to listen, console and provide companionship to Christians there.
He also stressed that the Christian communities originally grew in the region because of the love they showed, not the weapons they used.
“I am not here to beg for money,” Archbishop Chacour said. “I’m here to beg you to give me your friendship and solidarity.”
He urged people to stand with the Jews in friendship but not to be against the Palestinians.
“We have been labeled a nation of terrorists,” he said. “We have been a nation terrorized for over 70 years.”
If people sympathize with the suffering of Palestinians in refugee camps, or struggling under the occupation in Gaza or the West Bank, or as second-class citizens in Israel, they might decide “to be on our side,” he said.
“If being on our side with the Palestinians, being for us, means being against the Jews, we do not need your friendship,” he said. “You reduce yourselves to being one more enemy.”
Archbishop Chacour said his parents taught him never to hate, even though, when he was 8, the Israeli military ordered his family to leave their home in their ancestral village. Expecting to be allowed to return, his family and other villagers lived for two weeks in the hills. Then the family heads went to speak with Israeli authorities about returning to their homes. Instead of inviting them back, the military herded them onto military trucks “like cattle” and dropped them off across the border at Nablus, West Bank, and told them not to return.
Though Archbishop Chacour’s father managed to return after several months, most of the others never came home. Those who were compelled to leave Israel by what he called a form of ethnic cleansing became the “famous Palestinian refugees” who ended up in refugee camps or remained stateless in surrounding countries.
In 1953, his home village was razed and the land confiscated by the Israeli government, he said. But he does not use these experiences as a pretext for hatred or violence. Instead, he has devoted his life to reconciliation and building peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
“We Palestinians and Jews do not need to learn how to live together,” he said. “We just need to remember how we used to live together for centuries and centuries.”