Promise of the Promised Land

Elias ChacourArchbishop Elias Chacour of Galilee is working to create his own biblical vision of the Holy Land, in which people of all faiths live together in peace.

View an interview with with Archbishop Chacour in Quicktime.

A few months after Israeli soldiers deported the men of his village, 9-year-old Elias Chacour climbed the hills of Galilee to talk to his friend and champion, Jesus. He imagined Jesus at the Mount of Beatitudes and contemplated what Jesus’ words meant. “Do you want us to be your lips and hands and feet—as Mother prays—to bring peace again? If that’s true, you can use my hands and feet. Even my tongue,” Chacour remembers in his book Blood Brothers (Chosen Books).

Chacour’s prayers were answered. Not only did his father and brothers return, but over the course of Chacour’s life, he has used his hands, feet, and admittedly “fiery” tongue to try to create peace.

The three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize has traveled the world to speak about the treatment of Palestinians. As archbishop of the Eastern-rite Melkite Catholic community, an Israeli citizen, and a Palestinian, his words carry weight. He says what people often don’t want to hear—criticizing Israeli policies, clarifying Western misconceptions, and openly sharing his story.

His story begins in the Christian village of Biram, where his family had lived since the 16th century. Chacour traveled as far as Paris to study for the priesthood, but returned to Galilee to become a pastor.

There he recognized the lack of educational opportunities for Palestinians of all faiths and eventually started the Mar Elias Educational Institutions. The schools now give about 4,500 Muslim, Christian, and Jewish students hope for the future, teaching them to use their own hands, feet, and tongues to work for peace.

What first motivated you to dedicate your life to peace and reconciliation?
I asked myself what the alternative to hatred would be. Hatred would lead us all to a catastrophe. We would become monsters if we allowed hatred to fill our hearts. What is good for my community is life, not death. It is impossible to care for my own small Christian community without building quality relations with our neighbors—Muslims.

Muslims, I have understood from the very beginning, are my compatriots, my people, my nation. They suffered with me, and I suffered with them. We were deported together, deprived of our nationality; our land was confiscated. There’s no Christian land and Muslim land; there’s only Palestinian land. When the army comes to oppress us, they don’t distinguish between Christians and Muslims. There are so many commonalities between Christian Arab minorities and Muslim Arab minorities inside Israel.

We cannot forget that we have been living with Islam since Muhammad. We have a popular saying, and it is our conviction: “We all believe in the one God, but our worship places are different.” In religion, you cannot force anyone to believe in your faith, but you can expect them to respect you.

I also am concerned with getting to know the neighboring Jewish communities better. We need to make our reality known to our Jewish neighbors and eliminate these prejudices that a Jew is a soldier, an oppressor. And in the eyes of many Jews, Palestinians are no better than Jews are in the eyes of many Palestinians. In order to break away from these prejudices, we need to create opportunities for all of us to meet and look each other in the eyes. We can disagree, but we can disagree agreeably.

Do you feel that the school you started in Ibillin, Galilee, in which Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students meet and work together, has an impact on the larger community?
I don’t fool myself. My school is a small school. What are 4,500 children in a big country, in a big Middle East? We don’t have the ambition to convert anybody in Israel to our vision or to our religion, but we want to show everybody that to live together, respect diversity, and create unity is possible. We want to be a role model and, thank God, we have been very successful in doing that.

The Israeli prime minister’s office and the Palestinian president’s office know us, and they all wish that we might have more influence and success.

How do the students learn to get along with each other?
It’s a huge adjustment, especially for the younger men and women who used to live in close-minded villages. Right away I noticed that the reaction of children who came from purely Christian villages was the same as that of children who came from Muslim-only villages. They were afraid of contacting each other. They needed to discover that they have the same aspirations, ambitions, imaginations, and feelings.

This was so clear the first time we received Jewish children in our school. I was scared because I had spent several months meeting with their parents to convince them that it would be good for them to be with us. When they arrived at the school, I sent all the students, Jewish and Palestinian, on a field trip.

When they came back in the evening, it seemed as if they forgot they were Israelis and Palestinians; Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They exchanged addresses, e-mail addresses, telephone numbers. It was beautiful. I think we have to help students discover that young people in China are like young people in Chicago or in Nazareth or in Gaza.

It seems, at least from Western media reports, that martyrdom and extremism are attractive to Muslim young people. Is there a competition for the hearts of your young people?
Are you sure of that? We need to be careful not to fall into that trap of propaganda and of brainwashing. Islam does not accept or tolerate suicide bombers. A suicide bomber commits three crimes at the same time: a crime against God, a crime against himself, a crime against society. Both Christians and Muslims say that.

We must not tolerate suicide bombers, but we also need to go deeper and ask why there are suicide bombers. Are our Palestinian children born to love dying? Children 50 years ago never committed suicide, even though fanatical Islam existed then, too.

Suicide bombers come from the West Bank or Gaza, the occupied territories. They have been under occupation for more than 59 years, first under Jordan and Egypt, and then under Israel. Added to their deprivation and marginalization are the daily humiliations at checkpoints. I won’t tell you the details about what happens there. In order to respect myself, I prefer to wash our dirty laundry together back in Israel.

But when these young people see their mother humiliated, their father beaten in front of them, they consider dying an achievement. It’s putting an end to their humiliation. That has nothing to do with religion.

If the reply to suicide bombers, as I have told the Israeli prime minister, is to demolish their homes, to uproot their olive trees, to hunt their parents on the streets from a helicopter, this creates more suicide bombers.

The only reply should be to regenerate hope and meaning in the hearts of young people so they do not give up on life in order to stop the humiliation.

How do you regenerate hope for young Palestinian people?
First, we have to end the occupation. There are no two ways about it. Second, we have to let them circulate freely, at least in between their towns. Gaza, Hebron, Jericho have become huge prisons where people are not allowed to get out or in without passing through a military checkpoint.

We also have to give them an opportunity to have an education. The Gaza Strip is a tragedy, a shame on the face of humanity. One and a half million refugees are there because they have been deprived of their land, their homes. They were deported, kicked out, cleansed ethnically. They are left in that piece of desert with no freedom. For 59 years the only thing they can do freely is make children. And they make many children—smart, most beautiful children, but with no hope, no future.

I always have said to the students, “When you see me, give me a smile of hope. You are loved; you are expected to love us. You are expected to work together for a better future. Give me a smile of hope.” We need to put smiles of hope on the faces of the children of Gaza and the West Bank. They need to know that they can laugh and that they are loved. Then no one would commit suicide. We are born to live, not to die.

What role does religion have in creating peace?
We have to consider what religion. Some Christians in the United States speak in the name of God, even your president, and do what they are doing in Iraq in the name of God. They consider God their servant and read the Bible selectively to justify their selfish ideas.

The religion of Jesus Christ, the man from Galilee, my compatriot, is very different from the faith of those who say, “Whoever is not with me has to go to hell.” I want Muslims and Jews to go to heaven. Or better than heaven, I want them to stay with me here on Earth.

Nonetheless religion plays a major role in the conflict in the Middle East in the sense that everyone uses religion to justify national and political claims.

What is the conflict about in the Middle East? Is it religions against each other? It has never been and it will never be. Is it the races against each other? They are all of the same race, the Semite race. So what remains? It is a conflict around a territory.

Modern nationalism, including Zionism, is fighting to control a territory. They use religious arguments to justify their national, political, and territorial claims. Some Jews may say, “We have been here 2,000 years. We have been sent into diaspora; we are coming back. Thank you for keeping our home, but go away now.”

Some Palestinians say, “Welcome back, my brothers. We remember that it was a Roman leader, not a Palestinian, who deported you. We were with you, and we remain here. We belong to this land. It is our ancestral land.” And some Muslims might argue: “It is God’s order that a land that was once Muslim has to stay Muslim forever.”

With these religious arguments, we can only make wars, so let us put away religious arguments. The land does not belong to Jews or Palestinians; it is Palestinians and Jews who have to learn how to belong to the land. Otherwise, as the prophets say, the land shall vomit everyone who wants to have an exclusive control over it.

The Bible says that you are not allowed to claim the land for yourself and exclude others from living there with full equality with you.

Growing up near the Mount of Beatitudes, you’ve said that Jesus’ teachings there are very important to you. How can the Beatitudes inspire peace?
The majority of American Christians do not have access to the Beatitudes. You read a translation of the Sermon of the Mount, and you read them as blessings—the “be happy attitudes.”

In Aramaic, Arabic, and Hebrew, the Beatitudes say “straighten up.” They mean get up, go ahead, do something, get your hands dirty. Just as you find food for your stomach, do the same for your spirit if you are hungry and thirsty for righteousness and for justice. Do something if you want to be a peacemaker, not a peace contemplator.

I am bothered when we look for interpretations that suit our feelings.

What is the best we can hope for in terms of a political solution?
In Israel there is a consensus now that military means will accomplish nothing. If Israel wants to survive, it has to give up much of the land for the Palestinians, at least the land that was occupied in 1967 during the Six Day War.

I think Israel should open up to other countries, just as Jewish people once lived peacefully with Muslims and other non-Jews for centuries.

Otherwise they are ghettoizing themselves in a kind of self-chosen prison. That won’t work, and it’s why occupation is a two-edged sword. It corrupts the occupier and the occupied. It has to end for the sake of Israel as well as for Palestinians.

Is there a general consensus about a Palestinian state even among Jewish Israelis?
In Israel our Jewish brothers and sisters intellectually understand that without a state for Palestinians, they will never have any peace or any future. They will continue relying on their army, which the last war proved is not invincible.

But emotionally, within their heart, they love the land. That’s why the dilemma of Israel is so complicated. Many Jews think that Israel is not the state they wanted, not the life and security environment they wished for.

I appeal to Christians in the United States who love Israel to ask what that love means. What do they wish to give to Israel? Weapons, money, unconditional justification of anything? Or do they want the well-being of Israel? Are Jews in Israel now better off with American finances and weapons than when they had no weapons and no dollars and were living with their Muslim neighbors in Damascus, Alexandria, Beirut, everywhere in the Middle East?

Israel wants to be the 51st state of the United States. It’s impossible. There are two continents that separate us. I have told the Israeli minister of defense, “It’s time, my dear friend, that you realize that you can be the 21st state of the Middle East. You will be shocked to discover 200 million friends, instead of seeing the Middle East as a new Hitler who wants to swallow you, to annihilate you.” Non-Jews in the Middle East could have done that for centuries, when Jews were living with them as a small minority. They never did.

How can Christians in the United States deal with the charge that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic?
I’m paying the bill, as a Palestinian, for the guilty conscience of the Western world.

You have to be accountable for what other Christians have done to Jews, but ask yourself: Are you an anti-Semite? If you are, this is a sin. If not, are you allowed to criticize Israel? You’re not only allowed; you have to criticize Israel if you love Israel. It is your responsibility to evaluate Zionism. Otherwise you are resigning from your own human dignity and intelligence.

When you criticize Israeli policy and are accused of being anti-Semitic, you must say, “Stop. I am not anti-Semitic. I love every human being, and Jews are made in the image of God. But I don’t agree with what Israel is doing.”

Otherwise we continue the ugly game of persecutor and persecuted, and that does not help Israel.

What is the state of the Christian minority in the Holy Land?
Most of us are already gone. It’s a catastrophe. I don’t know what the Holy Land would mean without those who witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and to love and forgiveness.

All together there are 137,000 Palestinian Christians in Israel, but we represent only 25 percent of Palestinian Christianity. The other 75 percent is in Australia, America, Europe—in diaspora. They are in self-exile because they cannot bear to be marginalized amidst the Muslim and the Jewish majorities.

Instead of feeling that we are condemned to be together, we are trying to discover that we are privileged to be together. Our main concern is how to convince Christians to remain. They have a mission. They need to be aware of their identity as Christians.

Have you ever wanted to leave?
I don’t give the conflict away; I live it. I live the pain, the sorrow, the hope. It is my problem.

Once I wanted it to go away. I was fed up of hearing day and night, Jews and Palestinians, conflict here, conflict there, killing here, killing there. I said, “I’m fed up,” and I left the country. I lectured at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, in Geneva, Switzerland.

One evening I was lecturing to 40 theologians from Europe about the importance of ecumenical relations and interfaith acceptance. While I was speaking, I thought, “You are speaking to people who do not need you. Who will tell your own people back in Galilee that being a Muslim is no better than being a Christian or vice versa?” I left immediately and told my boss, “Tomorrow I’m going back home. The Jew and the Palestinian are living in my heart. I can’t forget them.”

What role do Palestinian Christians have in resolving the larger conflict?
We have a huge role. It is well recognized by Jewish authorities, as well as by the Palestinian Authority. We are a voice of moderation. We do not accept violence on either side, whether suicide bombers or the uprooting of olive trees, the demolishing of houses, and the building of walls. We want to build bridges, not walls.

This is the language I use with the Israeli leaders, who all come several times a year, as on a pilgrimage, to my archbishopric. I don’t reduce their visit to a courtesy visit. I share with them our claims, our vision, and our opinions.

The last visit of Shimon Peres to the archbishopric became a plea for the rights of the Palestinians in Israel, a reminder that I am from a destroyed village and want to return to my village. He called me a half hour after leaving and said, “Your Excellency, I don’t remember, in the past 25 years, having ever been emotional. I hope you have seen the tears in my eyes because all you said is true. All your claims are justified, but we don’t have a courageous Israeli leader to implement them.”

That’s what we do; this is our role.

How do you avoid bitterness?
What do you get when you become bitter? Nothing.

Yes, I blame the Jews who persecute us for doing so. Do I need to persecute them to find satisfaction? I blame them for hating us. Do I need to hate them? I blame them for corruption. Do I need to become as corrupt?

This is what we live, not just what we preach. We still have this crazy man from Galilee who was hanging on the cross. He did not hesitate to say, “Father forgive them; they don’t know what they do.” Don’t you think he could have cursed them? For me this is the most powerful statement that he ever made.

The gospel is not something idealistic; it is something to live. It’s hard to live, but nothing is easy when it’s important.

All active news articles