Archbishop Elias Chacour
OTTAWA – Years ago, Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour flew to Washington, D.C., to make an unannounced visit to then Secretary of State James Baker's personal residence.
The Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee was having trouble getting a building permit to expand a school from the Israeli government. That problem had repeated itself many times over the years as he built schools and summer camps for impoverished Christian and Muslim villagers.
To his surprise, Baker's wife Susan answered the door herself because she was expecting a group of American ladies for a Bible study, Chacour told a conference here Oct. 21 on The Future of Christianity in the Middle East.
He explained to her he was a man from Galilee and like the other man from Galilee: "We never take appointments. We make appearances."
She invited him into the kitchen for a glass of iced tea, explained her husband was not at home and added she was about to start a discussion of the Beatitudes with the 20 ladies in her living room.
She ended up inviting the archbishop to lead the Bible study. He spent the next two hours explaining the beatitudes to the women, noting how they are about following Jesus to the cross, not "be-happy attitudes" as some describe them.
Chacour told the women to convince their husbands "to get their fingers dirty" in the work of building peace and justice in the Middle East.
That "appearance" led to a friendship between the Bakers and the archbishop that not only got Chacour the building permit he sought, but also eventually brought the American secretary of state and his wife to visit his poor, marginalized village as "an act of solidarity."
"Are you ready when you visit the Holy Land to make that act of solidarity?" he asked the 150 people attending the conference.
Saint Paul University's Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, co-sponsored the event with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association Canada.
Chacour warned the audience that anyone expecting him to be for or against Palestinians or Jews "will be disappointed."
A renowned peace-builder, Chacour described himself as a Palestinian, an Arab whose mother tongue is Arabic, a Christian and an Israeli citizen who is proud of each one of his identities.
Christians, not only in Israel, but all over the Holy Land are seeking to leave and find opportunities elsewhere.
He stressed the Christian communities originally grew in the region because of the love they showed, not the weapons they used.
"I am not here to beg for money," Chacour said. "I'm here to beg you to give me your friendship and solidarity."
He urged people to stand with the Jews in friendship but not to be against the Palestinians.
"We have been labeled a nation of terrorists," he said. "We have been a nation terrorized for over 70 years.
"If you sympathize with the suffering of Palestinians in refugee camps, or struggling under the occupation in Gaza or the West Bank, or as second class citizens in Israel, you might decide "to be on our side."
"If being on our side with the Palestinians, being for us, means being against the Jews, we do not need your friendship," he insisted. "You reduce yourselves to being one more enemy."
Chacour's parents taught him never to hate, even though when he was eight, the Israeli military ordered his family to leave its home in their ancestral village.
Expecting to be allowed to return, his family and other villagers lived for two weeks in the hills. Then the family heads went to speak with Israeli authorities about returning to their homes.
Instead of inviting them back, the military herded them onto military trucks "like cattle" and dropped them off across the border at Nablus and told them not to return.
Though Chacour's father managed to return several months later to the room he and about 11 family members had found in a neighbouring village, most of the others never came home.
"We Palestinians and Jews do not need to learn how to live together," he said. "We just need to remember how we used to live together for centuries and centuries.