Bringing Two Enemies Together: Elias’s Lifelong Mission
Throughout his life and career, Elias has been an advocate of peace, seeking unity and reconciliation between the Arab and Jewish people. He has always voiced his opposition to violence, and has poured his efforts into promoting non-violent relations between the two peoples:
“We have tried violence. We have tried wars. We are sure that wars will bring wars. I am sure that the attempt to kill the Arab mayors on the West Bank in early June will bring more killings of Jews. I am sure. It’s a vicious circle. We know where violence leads. Even if we are not certain where we are going with nonviolence, let us try it. At least that. At least we can be sure with nonviolent action that, even if we are destroyed ourselves, we will not destroy any other person.”
When we look at Elias, we see a man who has spent much of his time and effort to bring two enemies together, never giving up on the hope that one day, Jews and Arabs will sit down at one table and be at peace with one another. And while Elias knows he could never solve the big picture, it does not prevent him from doing what he can to bring them together:
“I try to be a realistic man. I can do hardly anything to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. But what I can do surely is to create relations of mutual respect and friendship between a Jew and a Palestinian. It’s so humble, so modest. So I try to inspire the Jews and to convince them that they need to trust, because we are not their enemies. We are their victims. And we don’t want to stay their victims. We want to stop this victimizing and to start being partners — to build up this country together.”
Elias Chacour was born in 1939 in Kafr Bir’am, a small village in upper Galilee which was under British control at the time. His parents were of Palestinian descent, but were devout Christians and members of the Melkite Greek Catholic sect (a Byzantine Eastern rite church which was in communion with Rome). Along with his brothers, Elias grew up with tight family connections due to the values instilled in them by their parents.
Growing up in Kafr Bir’am was quite an adventure for Elias, as the town featured a mix of people from all three religions of British Palestine at the time – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – although the majority of the townspeople were Christians. Because Elias’s parents showed no discrimination against their neighbours who practiced different faiths, Elias came to develop a sense of equality and religious freedom that he would carry throughout his adult life. His parents were a powerful inspiration to the young Elias, who saw them as his greatest role models.
In the same year that Elias was born, war erupted in Europe and quickly spread across the continent. Millions of Jews were killed, but, fortunately, many also escaped the Holocaust. And although Germany was miles away from where Elias and his family lived, the devastation caused by Adolf Hitler was felt all over the world. When he was very young, Elias remembered how his father always told him and his brothers about the war, even though they were too young to understand it.
He recalled his father’s stories in an interview many years later:
“My father told us–we were six children–that in a country called Germany there had been “a cruel Satan killing Jews.” Of course, we knew little about faraway places. We Palestinians had come out from under the slavery of the Turks, and then the British Mandate, ignoring almost everything else in the world. But nobody could ignore Germany, even if that nation was at the end of the earth.”
Evicted From His Hometown: Elias’s Hard Experiences with the Jewish People
Little did Elias realize how the war would affect him and his family. In 1948, three years after the war’s end, Israel proclaimed its independence and called all Jews to return to their motherland. Having both Palestinian heritage and Christian faith played a big role in Elias’s unfortunate experience during this time because of the Jews’ history with both Palestinians and Christians, having faced severe persecution from the latter.
In that same year, Elias and his family were “evicted” from their home when Jewish soldiers came to their village in light of the Arab-Israeli War. While the Jewish soldiers promised to have Elias’s family and neighbours returned after a few days, it never actually occurred, and the inhabitants of Bir’am were forced seek refuge in the nearby town of Jish:
“When the soldiers came, he told us they would need to sleep in our beds, and he asked us to sleep on the roof. And we children gladly accepted this–it was fun to sleep on the roof! We thought of the soldiers as our guests. For the first time in my life I saw father slaughtering a sheep to prepare a feast. It was like this throughout the village, and the soldiers stayed in every house. It was the consensus to accept them. But a few days later, the keys to the doors were collected by an officer. For security reasons, he said, we must all leave for a few days... What was to be a few days became weeks and then months and now it is thirty years.”
This negative experience left a painful mark on Elias and his family, who, in spite of what the Israeli soldiers had done, remained in good relations with the Jewish soldiers who took their home. Wanting to return to Bir’am, Elias’s parents, along with other adults of their community, petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice to let them return to their village.
Although the court sided with the residents of Bir’am to let them return home, the soldiers in the village refused to let Elias and his neighbors do so. In response, the elders of the town of Bir’am made a second petition in 1951, which they also won; but before they could even prepare to return, Bir’am was reduced to rubble after Ben Gurion, the Israeli Prime Minister, ordered the town’s destruction.
There were tears in Elias’s eyes when he related these events in an interview:
“When the elders realized the Israeli army had fooled us... We applied to the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice in Jerusalem, and at last we won the case. But when we asked the army to implement the court’s order, the soldiers refused. Their own court! We applied to the court a second time, and in 1951 we won again. When this happened, the Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, ordered the destruction of the village. On Christmas morning it was bombed, and then bulldozers swept away what was left.”
With their hometown destroyed, the inhabitants of Bir’am had no choice but to remain in Jish, a town which had a majority of Jewish and Christian inhabitants. And although both the Christians and Jewish villagers remained friendly with each other, Elias knew there was still prejudice underneath it all, especially due to the fact that he was a Palestinian-Arab.
Called to Serve
Elias’s parents instilled in their children the importance of education, and did everything they could to ensure that Elias and his five siblings could receive quality education. At a young age, he already felt that his calling was to become a priest. When he was eleven years old, he decided to enter the seminary to become a full-fledged priest. Elias spent his primary and secondary educational years at Haifa and Nazareth, respectively, and was praised by his instructors for his exceptional intellect and compassion for others. After completing his secondary education, he was sent by the Melkite Church to the Sorbonne University in France, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Theology and Biblical Studies in 1965.
Elias returned to Israel after his graduation and was ordained by George Selim Hakim, who was the Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee at the time. A few months after his graduation, Elias went to the town of Ibillin for his transitional period; Ibillin was the birthplace of Miriam Bawardy, the most recent saint of the Melkite Church.
Although he originally intended to spend only a month in Ibillin, Elias changed his mind and decided to stay longer after witnessing the extreme prejudice faced by many of the Arab boys; there was a complete lack of educational opportunity for those beyond the eighth grade, resulting in many of them growing up without proper education. Wanting to make a difference for these children, Elias worked with community leaders to establish a school that was open to all children no matter their religious affiliation.
Higher Education and Philanthropic Work
Elias entered the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to pursue his studies further, and in 1968 he received his Master’s degree in Bible and Talmudic studies, making him the first Palestinian-Arab to obtain a degree in that course. Right after graduating, Elias returned to Ibillin to complete what he started and establish a youth center for kids of all religions. Elias’s work was so successful that he worked with the local government to build various institutions such as public libraries, kindergartens and tutorial programs in six villages in Central Galilee over the next three years.
When asked in an interview why he began building libraries, he answered:
“Three-quarters of our young people are under twenty-eight. I did some research earlier and discovered that every young person here, and it is true in other villages of Galilee, has six to eight empty hours a day–sitting on street corners, playing with stones, waiting for nothing–growing bitter thinking of the opportunities young Jews have in neighboring villages raised on confiscated lands. I wanted to find an alternative for this empty time. Each time a young person accepts a book, you have given meaning to twenty hours in his or her life, and perhaps have done more than that.”
Establishing Mar Elias High School and Publishing “Blood Brothers”
In 1971, Elias received his Doctorate degree in Ecumenical Theology from the University of Geneva. Upon returning to Ibillin after his graduation, Elias appealed to the Israeli Ministry of Education to obtain the authority to build a high school, but was denied several times. In spite of this, Elias continued his petitions and garnered the funds and support to open his own school. In 1982, and without a building permit, Elias opened Mar Elias High School with eighty pre-enrolled students.
Initially, the establishment of Mar Elias High School did not sit well with the local authorities, as they felt that “giving the Arabs in Israel education would result in them being [more] dangerous than simply giving them bombs to blow up Jewish stores.” As Elias said in an interview when referring to this:
“The prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs once said, 'It is more dangerous to give Fr. Chacour the opportunity to provide Arabs with books than to give him a bomb to throw in a Jewish shop.' He’s definitely right. With a bomb you kill. With books you can make people aware of their own responsibility. But perhaps he thought of that only as leading toward vengeance. Responsibility can also lead people toward forgiveness.”
Initially, Elias faced many threats, even from powerful members of the community, to have his school shut down. Nevertheless, he continued to run Mar Elias High School, sometimes even personally bringing students home to protect them from harassment. It was not an easy task, but Elias was determined to ensure that he could reach out to the children in his community and give them quality education.
Eventually, Elias’s hard work paid off and Mar Elias High School was given a building permit to operate legally. Through the persistence of Elias and his team at the school, coupled with pressure from the international community, the Israeli government came to recognize and allow the school to operate without hindrances.
Since its establishment, Mar Elias High School has grown significantly; today, it provides quality education to more than five-thousand students, a mixture of Christian, Jewish and Arab youths who are not accepted into normal Jewish schools. Through Elias’s leadership, the school has experienced tremendous success and received numerous awards, including winning in the Hebrew language “competitions” of the 10th and 11th grade levels of all the schools in Israel.
Elias’s work in uniting people from different religions and cultural backgrounds was not confined to the school; as a priest of the Melkite Catholic Church, Elias was known by many to be very approachable, and did not discriminate against anyone no matter their faith. He worked with many others in Israel to promote unity between the Israelites and Palestinians, which later earned him the “Niwano Peace Prize.”
In 1984, Elias released his autobiography, “Blood Brothers,” which narrated his life from the time he left Bir’am to the establishment of Mar Elias High School. The book was well-received internationally and translated in twenty-seven languages, making Elias one of the most successful authors in Palestinian history.
Since 2000: Elias’s Success
Throughout the late-1990s and early 2000s, Elias continued to promote equality between Israelites and Palestinians and call on both to unite and live together peacefully. Even in the midst of threats and efforts to silence him, Elias continued calling for the restoration of friendly relations between them.
In 2006, Elias was ordained as the new Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church for his work and effort to unite people of all religions. In his speech during the ordination, he said:
“I did not dream of this responsibility and this great honor. My dreams were different. At sixty-five years of age my ambition was to dedicate the rest of my life to prayer, reading and writing, but like Paul on the way to Damascus the Lord seems to tell me that he is the one in control... No doubt my first reaction was tears of awe, of joy and of gratitude.”
Today, along with successfully running Mar Elias High School, Elias continues to fight for peace and call on both Israelites and Palestinians to end their conflict and start building a new Israel where people of all races, beliefs and cultures can live together in peace and harmony:
“You can take our lands, you can take our houses, you can kill us. But you cannot take our hearts with violence. Impossible! I hope you will try to have our hearts in the way described by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince–’to tame each other’–not with bombs, but with silence, contemplation, and one’s own conversion. We have to tame each other. There is no alternative if we are to survive. We go on killing until there is no one left, or we choose to survive together.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Pilgrims of Ibilin
- Mar Elias Educational Institutions
- Galilee Peace Research Center
Awards and Achievements
- 1999: Received the “Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur” from the government of France
- 2000: Received the “Marcel Rudloff Peace and Tolerance Award”
- 2001: Named “Man of the Year” in Israel and won the “Niwano Peace Prize”
- 2002: Received the “Peacemakers in Action Award” from the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding
- 2006: Named the Archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church of Haifa Akko, Nazareth and All Galilee
- 2013: Received the “World Methodist Peace Award”
- 2001: Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Emory University, U.S.A.
- 2011: Honorary Doctor of Divinity from the University of Dayton, U.S.A.
- 2013: Honorary Doctorate from Randolph-Macon College, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from Garrett Evangelical-Theological Seminary, U.S.A.