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Educating for Justice and Reconciliation

“Those who have a living conscience must speak out for the interests of the Jews and for the interests of the Palestinians.”

by Michael Healy

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In a land where rhetoric is a powerful force in reaching hearts and minds, Father Elias Chacour speaks with a directness which is certain to be heard. A man of action and faith, he is a clear voice of Palestinian Christian fidelity in the jumble of religion and politics in the Holy Land. He speaks best by doing what needs to be done.

Meeting him at the school he founded in the small village of Ibillin in the hills of the upper Galilee, one knows that this person does not suffer easy questions gladly. He has important business to be about. He makes time, though, to speak about the school, Palestinian students, and what he teaches.

“The only dream we have is to give the highest education to our children. This is the thirst and hunger we have,” he says. Palestinian students share that dream. They “love” to attend school and find it torturous when they cannot, he says.

Five hundred students commute from 18 different villages in Galilee and the Golan Heights to lbillin’s hillside school. Over half the students are female, and 65 percent of the student body is Muslim.

“I built it in 1982 without a building permit,” he says. He was “creating facts” so it would be done, thereby changing any debate. (Israelis coined the phrase when they began building settlements on Arab land in the occupied territories.) A year after the school was built, he got the permit.

Father Chacour thinks education is central to solving the conflicts between Arab and Jew in the Holy Land. “In this time of cruel circumstances, when every day we have so many martyrs killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we try to teach that the most important thing is not to throw a stone or to have a machine gun, or to turn over the roles [of oppressor and oppressed], but to change the real situation.”

He has been addressing “the real situation” in the Holy Land since the Sabra and Shatila massacres drew him back to Galilee. He was in West Germany then and beginning what could have been a comfortable academic life. But the brutal slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Palestinian men, women, and children challenged him as a Palestinian and as a Christian.

When he heard of those deaths in the refugee camps in Lebanon and wondered what to do, he recalled his mother’s words: “Be strong, Elias. What you do matters. Especially for the young ones.” He decided to return to Galilee to continue “the long, slow labor of teaching young people the treasures of the Sermon on the Mount” as the way to “point them toward true peace.”

He recognized that a comfortable life away from his homeland and blind to its pain would betray his commitments to God and to the Palestinian people. He wrote that he belonged “back in the place where villages and churches were being reunited, where schools and community centers and spirits were being built up, where, amid the terrible noise of violence I could hear the whispers of the Man of Galilee, saying, Behold, I make all things new.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Palestine Israel Education Jews