Anyone wondering about the future of Christianity in the Middle East could find some fascinating answers last weekend in Canada, where a symposium on that topic was held at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa. It was sponsored by the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and CNEWA — and I was invited to take part in a panel discussion.
The main speaker was Archbishop Elias Chacour, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee. Archbishop Chacour, the first native Palestinian Arab to be named a Melkite archbishop in Israel, refers to himself as “the other man from Galilee.” It is a title he deserves. He has worked for peace, justice and reconciliation between Christians, Jews and Muslims for decades. He is the author of several books, the most famous of which, Blood Brothers, has been translated into 20 languages.
Living for years in poverty in the small Israeli Palestinian Arab town of Ibilin, he worked to bring opportunities for education not only for his own Christian people, but also for Muslim and Jewish children in the area. His goal has been not only to educate the youth academically, but also to acquaint them with their Muslim and Jewish neighbors, defusing hatred and hopefully contributing to a just and lasting peace.
Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Archbishop Chacour has worked tirelessly to make the world aware of the plight of Palestinians. In this he is not different from many others. What makes him stand out is that, while making the oppressed and unjust situation of the Palestinians clear to the world, he is at the same time very careful not to demonize Israeli Jews. Again and again, he warns his readers and his followers against the danger of contributing to a circle of hatred and violence that constantly threatens to engulf the region.
For years I have wanted to meet this other man from Galilee and was fortunate at the symposium to have several conversations with him. The encounters were not disappointing. He has a quick sense of humor. Being with him, you feel that he is somewhere between a prophet and a beloved uncle. In Arabic he is popularly known as abuna ilyas, “Father Elias,” which happens to be what I am called in Arabic, too. We joked about the presence of two “Eliases” at the symposium. He quickly puts people at ease and it is easy to overlook that you are in the presence of a truly great man.
At the symposium, Archbishop Chacour met with members of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches. The future of Christianity is on the mind of these and of all Christians in the Middle East. Emigration, discrimination and outright persecution are factors that are reducing the presence of Christians in the very lands where Christianity was born. Archbishop Chacour’s comments to those who had suffered discrimination and even persecution because they were Christian were extraordinary. He understood their anger and pain; indeed he had experienced many of the same things. However, he reminded them all of the necessity to forgive and to work for reconciliation.
The symposium also included panels with scholars, clergy and the Honorable Jason Kenney, a member of the Canadian Parliament and a minister in the current government. There were lively and informed discussions on the complex problems facing all the peoples, but especially Christians in the Middle East. While no solutions were offered of course, the message of Archbishop Chacour gives us reason to believe that the situation is not hopeless.
Catholic News Service has more on Archbishop Chacour and his background at this link.