IBILLIN, Galilee, Israel — At age 75, he calls himself an international beggar.
The author, educator and advocate for peace and justice, Archbishop Elias “Abuna” Chacour met with us June 23 in the school that he built, adjacent to the church that he built, in the land of Galilee in northern Israel.
He begged. He pleaded for our friendship and solidarity.
Mar Elias Educational Institutions (named after the prophet Elijah, Abuna’s namesake) has more than 3,000 students — Christian, Muslim and Druze. The faculty is made up of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze. The elementary school has weekly exchange programs with local Jewish schools. It is one of the most highly ranked schools in all Israel — Jewish or Arab — and its students are some of the most successful in universities in Israel and throughout the Arab world.
Three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he was the winner of the Niwano Peace Award (the “Asian Nobel Peace Prize). The $250,000 prize was the seed money for the Church of the Beatitudes.
The archbishop combines great intelligence and Biblical knowledge with the ability to see God in every human being.
“I am a big beggar,” he said, seated in one of his school’s classrooms. “I am coming to beg from you, for God’s sake, Brothers and Sisters. I need this favor right now. Not in the future. It is not about money. I need your friendship and your solidarity.”
He had just been released from the hospital following a fall and an illness. But when he referred to how he felt, he was describing emotions, not physical health.
‘We carry the cross with Christ’
“Today we are not feeling very fine. Just two days ago some fanatic Jews attacked the church (the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, built where Christians believe Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish) and burned the facilities … A few weeks ago the same vandalism happened with the cemetery. They destroyed the tombs … It seems that Israel is absolutely unable to find the perpetrators.
“Two days ago they came at night and burned that beautiful church (just a few miles away) … The same thing happens to our schools. For the first time, they (the Israeli government) cut the subsidies to Christian schools. They claim they want Christians to stay but they do everything so that we will go. But it is our faith, our history, our hope — we carry the cross with Christ.”
The Israeli government continues to block his efforts focused on peace and education. But he continues to focus on faith. During the past 30 years, when faced with ongoing denials for a building permit for the school, they started building without a permit. They were in court 37 times with no success.
Then, in 1991, the message came to him clearly: The shortest way to Jerusalem passes through Washington, D.C.
He bought a ticket for the next flight, landed in Washington, rented a car and dropped by the residence of then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.
He went to the entrance door. Knocked. Susan (Mrs. James) Baker opened the door because she was expecting her friends.
She looked at the archbishop in surprise. “Madame,” he said, “I am another man from Galilee.”
“Do you have an appointment with me?” she asked.
“Madame, we men from Galilee don’t make appointments. We make appearances.”
She invited him in and offered him ice tea. Then she said, “I’m sorry. I have to go. I am busy with 20 American ladies. We are having a Bible study now. The Sermon on the Mount.”
So almost as though it had been planned ahead the ladies had another man from Galilee discuss the Beatitudes.
Prayer partner with James and Susan Baker
The next day he returned to Galilee. Over the next few months — after she had read his book “Blood Brothers” cover to cover in one night — he and Susan Baker became prayer partners, sometimes also with James Baker.
Then he told Susan Baker, “You have to help me now or you will have to come and visit me in prison very soon.” He explained to her the problem with the building permit. She told him not to worry; she would write a letter to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir right away.
But it was 1991. When James Baker saw the letter he said, “Susan, you will not send that. It might initiate a diplomatic crisis.” He took the draft letter to his office and then called his wife and said, “You sign this letter with me and I will hand deliver it to (Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak) Shamir with two copies of his (Chacour’s) books. I will not leave without a building permit.”
Baker told Shamir that every year the U.S. signs checks for billions of dollars of aid for Israel. Baker told Shamir, “I need you to do this small favor in order that we can sign the checks.”
The building permit was delivered right a way.
Subsequently the Bakers visited the school in Galilee, and they prayed together for peace and justice.
And then “Abuna” Chacour — abuna is a term of respect and endearment meaning father — returned to the main theme of his talk.
“I am a very well known international beggar,” he said. “I am a big beggar … I need your friendship and your solidarity … It is not easy to promise but … promise me in front of each other, in front of God, to question all your convictions, your certainties, as far as concerns Jews and Palestinians.
“In the States you are in touch with Jews — some might be your friends, some might be open minded and pleasant; some might be fanatical Jews, some others might be pro-settlers building settlements … I beg of you like a starving child begging his father for food, do not give up on these Jewish friends, continue being their friend — but who told you to stand on the side of Jews means to be anti-Palestinian?
“Stand on our side. But if standing on our side with Palestinians would mean you would tolerate anything a Palestinian does or if it would mean antipathy to the Jews, if you become anti-Jew, please stop. We don’t need your friendship with us if you are against the Jews. We need common friends.
“Go home in peace. We Jews and Palestinians will overcome this. We don’t need anyone to teach us to live together. All we need to do is remember how we used to live together with full equality for century after century… unless we are going forth to mutual destruction that will benefit nobody.”
Archbishop Elias “Abuna” Chacour
Birth: Born Nov. 29, 1939, in a Palestinian village in what is today northern Israel. In November 1948 most of the inhabitants were expelled; none was permitted to return, and the village was destroyed.
Career: Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church from 2006 to 2014. Noted for his efforts to promote reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.
Books: Two best-selling books are “Blood Brothers” and “We Belong to the Land.”
Awards: Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times; winner of the World Methodist Man of the Year Award, the French Legion of Honor, the Dante Alighieri Peace Award, and the Niwano Peace Award (the “Asian Nobel Peace Prize”).
Schools: Founded schools in Ibillin, Galilee. Mar Elias Educational Institutions are model schools, providing quality K-12 education for Christian, Muslim and Druze children (with exchange programs with Jewish schools in the Galilee) and with Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze faculty. The schools have more than 2,500 students.
Upcoming event: The Indiana Center for Middle East Peace will be hosting Archbishop Elias Chacour as the speaker for the ICMEP annual fundraising gala, Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel downtown Fort Wayne, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Cash bar, appetizers, dinner and a silent auction. Tickets are $65. Benefactor levels are $300, $500 and $1,000. All proceeds will be used to support ICMEP programs and mission partners. For tickets contact Joan Coslow at 424-2430 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Michael Spath at 515-9300 or Lmspath@msn.com.
This is the ninth of a 10-part series about Christians in the Holy Land. To read previous articles go to kpcnews.com/christians_in_the_holy_land. The final installment will focus on readers’ questions and answers. To submit a question email email@example.com.