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Today’s Prophetic Voices in the Holy Land

The living witness to Christ in the Holy Land is something rarely met by the typical pilgrim from the West.

text and photos by Michael Healy

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“The future of the Catholic Church in Palestine depends on the quality of Christianity of the local people, not on the holy stones,” says Father Elias Chacour. He speaks a truth little-recognized in the Catholic Church at large.

The Church’s existence in the Holy Land is threatened by the politics and economics which have been driving Palestinians from their homeland for more than 40 years. The Christian communities here are only two percent of the population, and the number is dropping. Catholics are a smaller percentage, numbering only about 77,000. If the Arab Christians leave, the land where Jesus lived would be without His followers.

Fortunately, there are Palestinian Christians whose faith lets them recognize and accept both the challenges and the responsibilities of their difficult position amid four million Jews and almost two million Muslims in Israel and its occupied territories. These Christians face the same challenges as the Church in its first years, except that now there is a worldwide Church which shares in their challenges within the one Body of Christ.

The living witness to Christ in the Holy Land is something rarely met by the typical pilgrim from the West. Yet, a vibrant spirituality here has a lineage back to the early Church and to the Hebrew prophets. A quiet and unheralded determination marks the survival of the Church here under difficult circumstances. The native Christian community provides essential leadership for Palestinians, both in articulating their needs and aspirations and in providing essential services to the community as a whole.

Father Elias Chacour speaks with a clarity, directness, and intensity which arise from a Palestinian Christian’s love of justice and truth. His actions speak with equal eloquence.

Father Chacour grew up in northern Galilee. As a boy he lived through the violent partition of his country, including the loss of his family’s beloved village and orchards. His faith matured in defiance of injustice and violence.

Now a Melkite priest, he still moves with boyish energy, but with a man’s purpose. At the same time he enjoys discussing his faith, such as his reflection on the Sermon on the Mount as a call to action. Going back to the Greek and Aramaic, he develops his exegesis on the theme of healing: “We’re called to do something. Jesus was saying, ‘Get up, do something – you peacemakers!’”

Father Chacour’s charming grin, quick humor, and natural warmth belie the struggles of his lifelong work, reconciliation among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He began this work when the divided Christian community in his first, and current, parish of Ibillin refused to heal their separation. On Palm Sunday the young priest locked the church doors and told the congregation that Christians cannot come to the altar of the Lord before they are reconciled with their enemies. And then he waited for them to be Christians.

After ten long minutes, one village leader stood to offer his brother forgiveness, but it was only when they embraced in mutual forgiveness that their true conversions began and revitalized the congregation. They celebrated Easter a week early that year because the dead parish came back to life in Christ.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Holy Land Unity Catholic Pilgrimage/pilgrims