Galilee Bishop Speaks for Justice, Friendship and Peace

Rev. Dr. Abuna Elias Chacour spoke about the need for security and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He said people need to take responsibility for one another by befriending people they consider their enemies.

Chacour is the founder and president of Mar Elias University, located in Ibillin, Israel –” where Muslims, Christians and Jews interact at the educational and social levels. On February 25, 2006 Chacour became the Catholic Bishop of the Galilee.

Chacour spoke at North Park University in Chicago, where hundreds of people celebrated the tenth anniversary of The Center for Middle Easter Studies. Here is a condensed summary of what Chacour said to an audience of Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“It is really a great pleasure to be with you. You should envy me for what I see. I see a beautiful face. May God bless you and give you courage to say the truth to the people and flatter the poor. I will do what I normally do but very short and succinctly.

I have the pride of introducing myself as a Palestinian. I am a proud Palestinian. I am Palestinian-Arab, which means my mother language is this very easy to learn Arabic language (audience chuckled). I challenge you; you will see even our children in kindergarten they speak very easily (audience chuckled more).

I am also a Christian –” that complicates the picture a little bit. People ask how comes were you born Christian thank God I converted to Christianity. I am also strongly as convincingly a citizen of the State of Israel. No way would I hide my social identity. Who am I first: Israeli citizen? Israel is an entity 58 years-old and I am 66 years-old. Israel immigrated into my country; my people became the Jews of the Jews. They were scattered into three major groups who experienced their Diaspora.

The first major group is in neighboring, outside countries –” Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The second major group in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza). They did not know they were going for no return and 58 years later they’re still refugees.

A very striking example is a piece of desert called Gaza. Gaza had 45,000 inhabitants originally but after Al-Nakba (the Palestinian Catastrophe) the rest (of the people) are Diaspora from 460? towns and villages and these people in Gaza were left with no freedom and no rights but they were free to make children who are healthy, clever, ambitious, but without any future.

Twenty years later after they became refugees Israel controlled all of Palestine including Gaza Strip and added the provision of daily humiliation. It’s not hard to convince young man or young woman to end their own lives. We have this horrible phenomenon of suicide bomber. Let us be clear: Islam does not order these crimes against society. But we are naïve if we condemn suicide bombers and think we have done our job; destroying homes, killing people, imprisoning people (are contributing factors to the conflict).

It is our job to regenerate the hope in the hearts of our young people.

The only thing to do is to end the occupation so that Israel can live peacefully side by side with Occupied Territories that were destined to become Palestine.

I was born a baby with a birth certificate. I was converted to Christianity not long ago. He is our major problem: we don’t know what to do without Him; we don’t know what to do with Him. It is confusing.

Two-thousand years ago that I was converted to Christianity and my forefathers preached humanity built on two realities. They started saying to humanity there should be no privilege of Jew against Palestinian, man against woman (equality).

I’m living in this Holy Land with the complexity of my identity and what is wrong between Jews and Palestinians and why are we fighting for almost a century. There has been no war of religion between Judaism and Islam. It is not an ethnic conflict. During a speaking engagement with Golda Meir I told her I’m more Semite than you. She was born in Russia and she grew up in Milwaukee, but I speak Hebrew with an Abram accent.

It’s a territorial conflict –” land of Israel, land of Palestine. Palestinian want justice what did we got we got misery only misery only starvation only poverty we did not got justice.

We made a divorce between peace and justice and we need to remarry them –” that’s what we are missing. Religion is playing major role to justify a political, national existence in the Holy Land –” not religion as such –” but the selective reading of our Scriptures. Each one tries to find justification for his political philosophy and that’s why I wrote second book, ‘We Belong to the Land.’ The (Mar Elias) school we try to create role model to see if we can change the mentality in education of children to respect no matter who is in front of you…changing the policy of tolerance.

I am a tolerated person in Israel but I never tolerated any Jew. Tolerance bears in itself the seeds of brutality and persecution. We are trying to educate our children to go beyond tolerance to a welcome acceptance of the other. We are testing whether we can create unity within the existing diversity. Instead of considering Palestinian or Christian or Muslim or Jew as contradicting we are trying to make that a real challenge.

It’s not a matter of denying or solidarity it’s a matter of education. How we portray non-Jew to the Jew and the Jew to the Palestinian. People see in the other the potential enemy or danger. This is where the solution has to be looked for. I have few experiences these past, few months.

Last August a Jewish soldier riding on a bus from Haifa to the city of Shfaram took his machine gun and killed the driver, two Muslim sisters (and another person). Twelve others were injured. The soldier was killed and the police were unable to liberate (retrieve) his body. The minister of police was sitting on the roof of a house while tens of thousands of people around the bus.

‘This is a political man,’ the chief of police said to me. ‘If you can help us.’

‘I can go,’ I said.

I said to the people: ‘I want to see the body of the soldier,’ and making my way between the young people enraged, nervous, I reached the bus.

‘Abuna the brain of the driver is still in a plastic sack on the left-hand side of the bus,’ a man said to me.

I walked in the blood.

Where was the Jewish blood and where was the Palestinian blood. I could not see who was Jewish or Palestinian who was the same color, who was the same smell the same horror. I walked in the blood; I walked in the blood of my brothers, the Palestinians and the Jews.

We are Christians, Muslims and Jews. We are enraged and we have the right to be shocked we are shocked. We are instructed from our religions whenever our enemy falls in front of us the only thing we have to do is respect him and bury him with respect. Soldier of an unpardonable crime. Our duty is to let him go.

It was 90 minutes before I could convince the crowd to let the chief of police and his men retrieve the body. I told the soldiers: ‘The time you are here no one is secure go away and security will come back to the town.’ Nine soldiers were there with their machine guns. I stood between me and the people. (Reader’s note: Chacour said he stood between the people…the people).

I told the soldier: ‘you better take away of your machine guns and go away with peace.’ The chief of police told the soldiers: ‘did you hear what he said the priest? He said go away.’

The men walked away. I said to the people: ‘Go home silently. Respect our people who were dead. Come back tomorrow we’ll organize a huge march against bloodshed against terrorism.’

Fifty-thousand people there were many Jews, I must confess the next day. Eight days later we celebrated. We wanted to celebrate our martyrs our two Christians, a way to celebrate to remember two Muslim sisters. Pray to God to give them eternal rest. Full of Christians, Muslims and Jews praying for their own martyrs in the church. It was the sweet from the bittersweet of the martyrdom.

We never read in Israel about a Zion. We don’t want to read about Zion (then, to the best of my knowledge, Chacour referred to the following Biblical passage)

“Even the ox has knowledge of its owner, and the ass of the place where its master puts its food: but Israel has no knowledge, my people give no thought to me.” Isaiah 1:3

The land does not belong to you it belongs to God. These passages have to be read in the context of the Bible. The Bible has to be read it is the struggle between God and humanity. That is why I think we need to go back to the original interpretation of the Bible.

The first, two questions that God asks humanity: ‘Where are you?’ He was hiding because he did something bad. ‘Where is your brother?’ Crime worse than am I my brother’s custodian you are coming to ask me? (Here is the passage I believe Chacour referred to)

“And the LORD said unto Cain, Where [is] Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: [Am] I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9

As a Christian this question (where is your brother?) has changed dramatically. I am my brother’s custodian. I am responsible for my brothers. Jews in the concentrations and Palestinian refugees. I’m responsible what happened to my Jewish brothers and sisters in the concentration, but in no way am I guilty. To be responsible means to be ready to ally for one common front so that no way no such holocaust horrors happened anywhere against anyone anybody anytime –” a common front so that no more holocausts against human beings (audience clapped loudly).

The Armenian is a Holocaust (Armenian Holocaust) –” the genocide in Cambodia. I was in Cambodia ten years ago I saw mass graves. These people were not buried. They were buried alive. What happened in Rwanda. When will we have what happened time and time against the Palestinians.

In the Talmud it says when you save one human life it is as if you save the whole human world. When you kill one human life it is as if you kill the whole human world.

We use religions in order to justify our own selfishness, ambition, political objectives.

Why did I tell you all of these stories in a rapid way because I believe you can make a difference you can make a big difference. I come to beg. I want a favor from you. I’m not begging for money. I am here to beg you for something much more difficult. I am inviting you to change your mind if your need is there.

On behalf of Palestinian children I beg you to give your friendship to Jews but if you take the side of the Jews and you empathize with the Jews but if it is in enmity against me you are wrong. It should mean to speak to the heart of your friend so that he accepts his enemy as a potential friend.

When you visit Palestinians if they do not have they will borrow money to give you what you need to feel comfortable (Palestinians are generous and hospitable people).

But if the side of the Palestinians would mean for you that you will justify the violence all our people commit; if taking our side to encourage us to go ahead with our hatred then we do not need your friendship. You are reducing yourself to being one more enemy. We do not need you to come to us to reduce us to pieces.

We are struggling to find a way out of this nightmare of killing each other.

Jews and Palestinians never risk to live alone or die alone. We are condemned to walk side by side or to hang by each other. We were never enemies with the Jews until 1948. I am all for the Jews to have freedom of expression, home and homeland. I am ready to struggle with the Jews because they are human beings. But when my people cannot live, how can I agree when my people are homeless, the scattered, the dispersed, how can I agree? There should be another solution so that there is justice, peace and security.

This is your responsibility as human beings unless you want to be like the sheet of paper that came out of the factory, immaculate like white snow on the table by itself, but the pens and pencils around the paper did not approach…clean white empty forever. What kind of hand do you want: clean and empty hands or hands loaded with dirt because you worked in order to save the poor and the impoverished?”