As a Palestinian Christian, Nobel Prize nominee Archbishop Elias Chacour has a perspective on the Middle East which is often overlooked. But his vision for a future peace is one which needs to be heard
Elias Chacour is an imposing figure, with robes, a ceremonial chain hanging from his shoulders and a majestic white beard. When he speaks to an audience of Biblelands supporters (many of whom look about as wellheeled and far from your average Palestinian subsistence farmer as one can imagine) he holds them in the palm of his hand. Even the rabbi and the representative from a Muslim group sitting in the front row cannot help but chuckle as he jokes, and they nod sagely as he makes many serious points about what life is like for ordinary Palestinians, particularly Christians. Because Elias Chacour is both a Palestinian and a Christian.
‘I was not born a Christian,’ he tells his Oxford audience, who clearly expect a profound conversion story, ‘I was born a baby.’ The quip gets a bigger laugh than perhaps the sombre, beautiful setting of Christ Church Cathedral is used to, but its point is not lost on those who hear: human beings do not start off hating each other. They have to learn such things.
And that is perhaps why Father Elias, Archbishop of Galilee in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (an early breakaway from mainstream Catholicism that is now fully reconciled with Rome), does what he does. Apart from his activism for peace and justice, Chacour is the founder and head of the Mar Elias group of schools, which provide quality education for Palestinian children in Israel and the Occupied Territories, regardless of their religious background. In these schools, Muslims mix with Christians, both mix regularly with visiting groups of Jewish children and relationships are born that inform the lives, politics and faiths of all who attend.
Mar Elias schools are internationally recognised (by the likes of Biblelands and others) as Arab-Israeli success stories. But it has not been an easy road for this Palestinian man, born to Christian parents and forced to flee his home as a refugee at the very inception of the state of Israel.
His early experiences of life as a refugee and the roots of the Palestinian struggle for justice were famously detailed in his 1984 book, Blood Brothers, and in his address he tells of his repeated run-ins with the Israeli civil and military justice systems as he has tried to work, within and outside the legal system, to be allowed to build facilities for his schools.
During our interview he is more serious, more thoughtful, less full of jokes, but his seriousness never gives way to an impression of bitterness. Despite the many challenges and trials (some literal) he has faced, Chacour continues to have hope and continues to reach out.
He counts James Baker, US Secretary of State in the first Bush administration, as a friend and prayer-partner (hardly the obvious choice for a Palestinian justice campaigner) and has continually pushed for a solution for Palestinians that is not prejudiced against Israeli Jews. Such level-headedness is rare in the Israel/Palestine debate. But Elias Chacour is a rare man.
You have spoken in the past of how people should be friends of Palestine without being enemies of Israel. Why is that important?
Because in Europe you tend to take the side of the people you know more about. You either become a friend to the Jews or a friend to the Palestinians. But should that mean that you hate your friend’s enemy? Is that a mature attitude? In doing so, in becoming one-sided on either side, you are reducing everything that you are into one more poor, miserable enemy. I’m inviting everyone not to become one more enemy but to try and become one more common friend.
You were born in 1939 in what was to become the state of Israel. In what way has your personal experience, seeing the creation of Israel, becoming a displaced person yourself, affected your views?
It has affected me like this: I was living in a nice, warm, Christian family and suddenly we became deportees, we became refugees. Everything in our life was turned upside down and we lived in chaos for many, many years before we tried to settle down as well as marginalised people with no home and no land can.
I was born in upper Galilee, not far from the Sea of Galilee, to a Christian family in a totally Christian village. And we were poor but very happy. After World War II, because of what had happened in Europe and mainly in Germany, Jews started streaming to Palestine with this nightmare they had lived through, which was the Jewish Holocaust. And we never imagined that soon we would become the Jews of the Jews, the victims of the victims of the Second World War.
We received the Jews as our blood brothers, as we considered them to be children of the same father: Abraham. We said: we will welcome them in our homes, prepare food for them. And that’s what was done. We did not know that the other side of their coming would be to evict us from our homes and to reduce us to deportees and refugees in our own country.
I have so many memories from my childhood. I have many happy memories. But I also have very many sad memories from the day we received the order: ‘Leave your home and go out for two weeks and then come back.’ But two weeks turned into 60 years and we became hungry, we were looking for old clothes to wear, we were deprived of everything. And that was extremely hard to swallow. And impossible to accept.
But we resolved that if we continue the vicious cycle of violence against violence, perhaps no one would survive. We have offered enough young men and women on the altars of war and violence. So shouldn’t we try to be like our Lord Jesus Christ? He tried to initiate hope where there was no hope. And that’s what we are trying to do. To try to build unity within diversity. And the best way to do that is to bring children together, to sit them around the same tables at school and tell them the stories you want them to believe, and they will go and tell their parents. Parents have to listen to their children.
As Christians, we are called to forgive. Do you find it hard to forgive the things that have been done to you, your family or your people?
I don’t need to forgive. I forgave long ago. It is not difficult to forgive. It’s difficult to accept ongoing injustice as if it were nothing but national aspiration. I cannot accept the continuation of injustices.
You are free to aspire to whatever you want provided you are not walking on my feet. I need a place to call mine. I don’t need to take your place. But please don’t take my place. And even if you take it, only take part of it. The other part should be mine.
I often use this very blunt analogy: if you want my jacket, please, take it. But if you also want my trousers? No. I will not give them to you. Striptease has never been a Palestinian phenomenon. And that is what is being done to us: stripping away our dignity, our country, our rights, our ambitions, our future.
These things that we want need not be in conflict with the future and the interests of the Jews. We want both to come together and to flourish.
The Palestinian state has been cut into pieces by military roads and settlements to such an extent that the viability of any independent Palestinian state seems questionable at this stage. Is a onestate solution possible?
Nothing is impossible. We should not ask whether it is possible as much as whether it is feasible. This would certainly be the best solution. But I am not a politician. I wish that all of the West Bank and Gaza could be annexed together and called Israel, Palestine or whatever – I don’t care. But that is practically impossible without a drastic change within the mentality of Israel.
If Israel, which already controls the West Bank and Gaza (albeit under occupation and deprivation), were to annex those territories and give the Palestinians within them the rights we have in Israel, to vote and to circulate, they would end terror.
But their fear is that their superiority would end at the same time, because Palestinians would immediately become 48% of that population. And since Palestinians have many more children than Jews, Palestinians would outnumber them.
As long as Israel’s philosophy is built on their numerical superiority, they have no hope in the Middle East. They should base their survival on the quality of relationships of justice and integrity, on fairness. Then Israel would not need to be confined any longer. That would open up the gates of all the Middle East. The prosperous Jewry of Damascus would return. The free Jewry of Alexandria would flourish. The very free Jews of Morocco would appear anew. The Jews of Iraq would come back into existence and into an enjoyable life.
But all that is conditional on giving justice to the Palestinians. Otherwise destabilisation will continue to spread.
So, peace and justice are linked?
It is impossible to achieve peace without justice and integrity. We have to pursue justice and integrity in order to enjoy peace and security. But there is no absolute justice in this world. We cannot claim justice in terms of trying to turn back history to 61 years ago. That would be crazy. That would not be feasible and an attempt to do so could create new holocausts all over the Middle East. There is no absolute justice, but there is a kind of distributive justice. For the Jews, surely, but for the Palestinians no less.
There are many Christians campaigning for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine, but there are also those whose ‘end-times’ theology has led them to justify and support anything Israel does, particularly in terms of actions against Palestinians. What effect does that have on the prospects for peace?
This has one major effect. These right wing, US Bible Belt Christians are wealthy. They are powerful. They only have two things to offer Israel: money and weapons. And that is the most destructive ‘help’ you can provide to Israel. The only thing Israel needs is a change of attitude towards the original inhabitants of the country. To go to the Palestinians and say: ‘Sorry. We came from the furnace of the Holocaust. We were unable to see you. We wanted to get rid of you because we wanted to be alone, but that’s impossible. We are sorry and we want to live with you.’
If it said that, Israel would solve all its problems. It would need no more weapons, no more dollars from America. And Palestine might become a beautiful paradise.
Lebanese Christians often speak of how they are made to answer and pay for the things their zionist brothers and sisters in Europe or America say. Is that true across the Middle East?
Yes. Muslims are human beings. When Christians like ‘his majesty’ George W Bush say they are going on a crusade, Muslims will say: ‘The hell with you Christians!’ even though we ourselves are not like Bush.
Bush had a problem: he forgot that though he’d climbed a high tree he was still only a little bush. He was too full of himself and too empty of God and of humanity. But that had a direct effect on us in the Middle East. This is what you’re witnessing in Iraq. Bush wanted to liberate Iraq and he turned it into a huge cemetery. And those who are paying the hard bill now are the Christians in Iraq. They are massacred for merely having Christian names.
Right now we are fund-raising among the Christians of Galilee to send as much money as we can to the Christians of Iraq to send them our love, concern and solidarity.
We can no longer keep silent about this crime. Keeping silent about a crime is to allow it. And that is what the West has done with regard to the Palestinians. Anything Israel does is considered legal. But did God divinize any nation? Even the prophets were killed because they spoke out against the bad actions of the Israeli leaders of those times. Have they been transformed into angels? There is a need for maturity in the West when considering these things.
Is it ever acceptable for a Christian to resort to violence in the name of justice?
No. Very clearly not. We are not a people who allow ourselves to use violence as a means to reach peace. With bad means you reach bad results. But we would be the last to condemn anyone who does not share our faith and opinion on this and resorts to violence. We will never agree with them. We deplore it. But we love them.
In your book, Blood Brothers, you talk about how Christians, Muslims and Jews all share a father in Abraham but also that they share a God as well. For some Christians, particularly evangelicals, this is a hard and troubling thing to hear a Christian leader say. Do you worry that it might be misinterpreted and can religions that disagree coexist peacefully?
I mainly worry for those poor Christians who forgot Jesus Christ and who made for themselves a new, man-made Jesus, full of hatred, revenge and violence. I do not want to prophesy that it is possible for Jews and Muslims to live together. I can point to centuries of life together. They always did live together. We did not have independence, none of us – we were occupied by Western powers, but we lived together and shared all pain and joy. We fought together, Christians, Muslims and Jews, to get rid of the horror of the crusaders in the Middle East.
I was not born a Christian. I thank God for this. I was born a baby. So is every Jew and Muslim. If we can remember our real human identity we can solve many problems. But we have chosen to be just Jews, Christians, Muslims. Stereotypes of our religions that make things impossible.
What are the biggest misconceptions among Western Christians about the Israel/Palestine situation?
It’s very simple: 67 years ago a Jew, born or unborn, was considered a so-called ‘dirty Jew’ – schmutzige juden – and there were those who thought killing a Jew was like getting rid of dirt. The West needed to see over 6 million Jews killed to realise that this was wrong. That it was not the Jews but the Third Reich’s ideology that was the real dirt. But that was too late.
I am happy that this mentality has been stopped. But the dirty Jew concept has been transferred and has become the dirty Palestinian, the dirty Arab. And to kill a Palestinian is no longer seen as illegal or bad. It’s normal. They are terrorists – that’s how the thinking goes. When, in fact, they are deeply terrorised as a nation. And what the West does normally is to mention the exception in order to excuse the majority on the Jewish side, while they mention the exception among the Palestinians in order to accuse the majority.
And this is unfair. I don’t want them to accuse the Jews. But it is unfair to condemn a collective based on the acts of some individuals from within it who have lost hope.
Jesus grew up in a Palestine that was under occupation as it is today. What can we learn from his attitude to empire and to power?
Just read the New Testament. You’ll find the answer. He clearly said give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. He would call the authorities whitened tombs, filthy inside. He would not hesitate to say to them: ‘You are sons of devils.’
When he was dying on the cross, though, if he had cursed those who were killing him that would have been very normal. But he never forgot that he was God. That’s why he did not react to violence with violence. He looked to his Father and said: ‘Father, I’m sorry, they’re idiots, they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive them.’ This is the strongest proof of his divinity for me.
What should Christians in Britain be praying for or doing with regard to Israel and Palestine?
I think British people should first pray for themselves before praying for us. And when British Christians go to Israel, they should make time to go and visit some of our Christian communities. Bethlehem, for example, which 25 years ago was majority-Christian and now has a Christian population of just 10%. People are leaving. They feel despised, neglected. They want to live happily in their country, but they can’t, so they leave. We do not want to see the holy places and shrines left without the living stones, the Christians, who could come and tell you the story of their man, their compatriot, Jesus Christ.
Elias Chacour is Archbishop of Akko, Haifa and Galilee in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and President and founder of the Mar Elias group of educational institutions. He is also Vice President of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center and author of several books, including Blood Brothers and We Belong to the Land. He studied theology in Paris and Hebrew (along with the Torah and Talmud) at the University of Jerusalem. A Nobel Prize nominee and internationally renowned speaker, the Archbishop has appeared several times on Premier Radio, discussing issues relating to Israel/Palestine.