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Priest in small Palestinian village intersects with people living in area

Larry and Donna Roberts’ 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land introduced them to Palestinian refugee camps and the small village of Ibillin, turning around their lives and worldview.

Fr Chacour
Father Elias Chacour

They and three other couples in Spokane’s First Presbyterian Church have established the Living Stones of Ibillin.  The group raises funds for Mar Elias Education Institutions and provides educational seminars, speakers and training for the community about life in Israel, and about Melkite Catholic Father Elias Chacour’s persistent efforts to serve all the people of Israel—Muslim, Jewish and Christian.

Last spring, they invited the Rev. Don Griggs, who led their pilgrimage, and Father Elias to Spokane to tell people about their ministries.
The Living Stones of Ibillin draws 35 to 200 people to local workshops on biblical archaeology, Christian Zionism, the Israeli state, and Middle Eastern geography and history.  They have about 400 supporters.  The organization is one of 20 U.S. chapters of Pilgrims of Ibillin.

Study has been part of preparing three area groups that have visited Ibillin in the last five years.  Groups have read Father Elias’ books, Blood Brothers and We Belong to the Land.   About half who have participated are from First Presbyterian and half from local Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and other Protestant communities.

“I never did anything like this before.  My heart and imagination have been stirred by Father Elias’ vision of peace and education for all,” said Larry, who moved to Spokane eight years after retiring from a high-tech marketing job in the Silicon Valley—which included extensive world travel in Asia and Latin America.

Seeing Palestinian refugee camps—in the Middle East since 1949—changed my views about what is happening there,” he said.

“Father Elias walks the walk and talks the talk—like Christ, Mother Teresa and Gandhi,” Larry said.  “He turns the other cheek, loves his enemies, works with enemies and is a humble person.

“He renewed my faith and opened me to a new circle of friends and associates around the world.  He has opened a new world to me, in contrast with my previous global contacts,” Larry said.

Inspired by the ministry in Ibillin, Don has introduced Larry and many others to the vision of peace and justice there.

 “While few in Israel know where it is, thousands in the United States know,” said Don, director of Pilgrims of Ibillin from Livermore, Calif.  “They support it with their gifts and prayers that bring smiles, courage and hope to those in the schools there. Last year we sent $175,000.  Together we are stronger than the storm.”

That “storm” includes uprooting olive trees to clear land for Israeli settlements, the wall separating Israel and the West Bank, checkpoints and a curfew that puts Palestinians under house arrest, Don said.

“In the midst of the storm, there is a servant of God, a compatriot of Jesus, a prophet in our times,” Don said.  “Elias Chacour was born in Biram near the Lebanese border in a Christian village where his family lived for generations.  In 1948, his family was removed from their village and they became refugees in their own land.  Now in Biram his family’s homes are in ruins, but residents have restored the church.”

Elias—known to many as Abuna or “father”—went to an orphanage school in Haifa, continued his education through graduate studies, and became a priest and teacher.  He was assigned to serve the Church of St. George in Ibillin, north of Nazareth. 

He soon realized his priestly duties were not enough to bring peace.  Children needed to be educated.  So he started a kindergarten in 1970.  Now the three-story kindergarten building has space to care for 270 children.  Those children go on to elementary school, high school and colleges, which Elias has built over the years.

Marsam Bawarde Elementary School started in 1977 with one grade.  Now there are 300 children in grades one to seven.  It uses the first floor of the Mar Elias Technical College.  Abuna’s dream is to raise $150,000 to build an elementary school.

The Living Stone’s goal is to raise funds for a computer lab for 25 students.

Mar Elias High School was founded in 1982, built without a permit.  About 1,300 students come from 70 villages in a 50-mile radius.  Last year, 315 graduated.

The Mar Elias Technical College graduated 120 students in 2003.
Mar Elias University was established in October 2003, built on top of the auditorium for the Church of the Sermon on the Mount.

In his talk in Spokane, Father Elias asserted: “Together we can overcome evil with good, hatred with love.  Together we can inspire the oppressed to be a sign of hope.  Together we can convert those who oppress to become allies with victims.

“I marvel seeing what has been done on a small hillside of the Mount of Ogre.  God has given me power to climb the mountain.  We have moved the mountain through a joint effort from all over the world.  We have become living stones,” he said, “making a peace bridge.  I want to build bridges between present enemies that were once old friends.

“Only when Palestinians look at a Jew and see what God created and when Jews see that we, too, are beautiful people, we can call each other brothers and sisters.”

Father Elias sees Jesus as a country man who hung around with young people, went to weddings, funerals and banquets, loved the land and saw the land and people full of lessons, which he turned into parables about the kingdom of heaven.  He lived what he taught and said those who followed him needed no army or weapons.  They were poor, peasants, fishermen, loving him and assured of his unconditional love for them.

“When I sit under a fig tree, I remember him.  When I go to the village to collect water, I remember him.  When I clear land to plant, I remember him.  It takes a month to clear a small field of big stones.  It’s easier to make a child than to plant the earth, sweating and toiling to clear the land, carry water from far away, dig small holes and plant trees and vines.

When I see modern bulldozers in a field uprooting 900 to 2,000-year-old trees and knocking down buildings, I cry as I cry when young people suspected of being terrorists are killed,” he said.

“Jesus did not say sit quietly and avoid conflict.  He said to risk our lives to save lives of the poor,” said the priest who learned that as a child, sitting on his mother’s lap and listening to stories of David, Moses, Jesus and Mary.

“I did not understand those stories or the Sermon on the Mount until I learned about Jews in concentration camps and saw Palestinians in refugee camps.

“Did Jesus live in the clouds or with people under the Roman empire?  When people were hungry, thirsty or suffering injustice, he entered their lives, because he knew that out of justice comes peace and security.”

As a priest in a little-known village where 8,500 children of God—75 percent under 28—live without roads or electricity, Father Elias lives among his people under a military regime.  Poor Palestinians stay in or around their villages.

Simple efforts to collect and distribute books or organize a summer camp for children have been hindered. When the mayor blocked the camp, Father Elias told the mayor he would make his life difficult. The next two evenings, he took two busloads of children to the mayor’s house to pound on drums.  He told the mayor he would stay until he had permission to organize a camp for the children.  It was granted.

“We are not allowed to close our eyes.  Before we started the schools, only 19 teens were going to high school, and girls were illiterate,” he said.

Without his bishop’s blessing and denied a building permit, he proceeded to build.  He hired an attorney and contacted the Dutch princess to raise funds in the Netherlands for the school.

“I do not accept denial,” he said.  “I continue to pray for peace and justice in Israel.”

Now there are 4,000 students, learning about peace and justice—60 percent Muslim and the rest Christian, Druze and Jewish.  There are 290 teachers, 100 with doctoral degrees and 92 with master’s degrees.

“When people do evil, I speak out to restore justice, because I am responsible for what happens to my brothers and sisters, including for what happened to my Jewish brothers and sisters in concentration camps in World War II.  I am not guilty for what happened, but I can be responsible by being ready to ally with every Jew and with every non-Jew to stop any other holocaust.”

In the last century, Armenians, Jews, Cambodians and many others were slaughtered.  Palestinian refugees have endured massacres in refugee camps, Father Elias said.

“This is a complex situation,” he said.  “Our life in Israel is a procession of funerals and bulldozed houses, followed by desperation and retaliation, but that does not justify what suicide bombers do.  It’s a crime.  No one has the right to end the life of another.  It just piles crimes on crimes, making more people criminals.”

Father Elias believes education is the way to do away with brainwashing that invites boys and girls—humiliated by the lack of opportunities, the wall and checkpoints—to end their lives and the lives of others.

“We have to be responsible and believe we can do something to make a difference,” he said. 

So Father Elias seeks to build understanding among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

“I refuse to be one-sided,” he said.

“To help Palestinians,” he advised, “do not take sides that encourage revenge or justify hatred that reduces Jews and Palestinians to pieces.  Do not send weapons.

“God removes fear that can lead to darkness,” Father Elias assured. “The light grows as people become partners in life.”

For information, call 448-0554.


By Mary Stamp, Copyright © October 2004 - The Fig Tree