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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 7, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 5Oakland, CA

Priest laments Druze attack
Mob destroys homes of 34 Melkite Catholics

Wherever he travels – pleading constantly for unity in diversity, justice, peace and tolerance – Father Elias Chacour feels the pull of his homeland, calling for his return to the hills of Galilee.

Father Chacour, a Melkite Catholic priest, recently spent four days in the East Bay, speaking at Presbyterian congregations in Lafayette and Livermore, which support a school he founded in Israel. He told of the need for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews, the despair of many Arab youth and the vision of peace that informs his Mar Elias Institute in the town of Ibillin.

But as he spoke, Father Chacour was pondering one of the latest crises in his homeland and how he could help the Melkite victims of a vicious attack on their village. Above all, he was desperate to help over a thousand children now too terrified to return to school.

The village is Maghar, a town of 18,000 Christians, Muslims and Druze (a group that split from Islam a thousand years ago), where a group of Druze connected to the Israeli military rampaged through the Christian sector in mid-February, smashing and burning homes, businesses and cars, and forcing families to flee in panic.

“The Israeli police just watched without intervention,” Father Chacour said in an interview. “They even forbade the fire brigade from entering to extinguish the fires. They came into the village three days after everything was done.”

This attack, he noted, is the first direct assault on a Christian village in Israel since 1947, the year his home village of Biram was destroyed and his family was forced to flee.

The rampage began with a rumor, he said, which was later proven false: that Christian youth had posted nude photos of Druze girls on the Internet. In response, some Druze determined to attack all Christians and some have continued to say that more attacks are coming. Other Druze, however, helped the Christians during the attack.

Father Chacour, as always, finds signs of hope in the midst of tragedy. Israeli Jewish newspapers condemned the attack, and Israeli officials have spoken out, he said, comparing the violence to attacks on Jews in Hitler’s Germany. And the Vatican and Catholic bishops have rallied behind the villagers.

The U.S. media, however, paid little attention.The Israeli response was more encouraging.

“One of the ministers of Israel came on Saturday, their Sabbath, and said, ‘It’s a Kristalnacht, not just violence. When I see the damage I remember the night when my father and mother were killed.’” The minister was referring to the destruction of Jewish property one infamous night in Nazi Germany.

The head of the Labor Party called the violence, “a real pogrom,” and Father Chacour was invited to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, where he spoke and answered questions for four hours. “I was very encouraged to see how many Jewish Knesset members spoke strongly about this savage attack against Christians and pointed out the negligence of the police.”

Members of the Knesset promised to take action against the attackers, to pay compensation to the victims and to pressure Druze families to help pay for the damage. “But,” Father Chacour said, “these are promises” and not likely to assure the terrified Christians.

After the attacks, Melkite residents of Maghar told Catholic News Service of their fears, their despair at losing homes, cars and businesses and, sometimes, of narrow escapes from the mob fury. The violence destroyed 34 private homes, 150 cars and dozens of stores. The windows of the church were shattered.

One businessman said his family had lived in Maghar for 600 years, but now he is afraid to return because there was no one to defend them – neither the state nor the police. Others said their children were harassed daily in school and there was no one there, either, to assure their safety.

These children are Father Chacour’s immediate concern, the 1,150 Maghar Christian children who are too terrorized to return to school. He wants to welcome them to Mar Elias Institute, which he founded to serve students from kindergarten through university level and which now has 4,500 students taught by Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Druze faculty - the only such institution in the world, the priest said.

“We have no chairs or desks for them. We need the means to buy the utensils, the blackboards, the desks,” Father Chacour said, and some of these children are already sleeping in the church.

The Catholic Church is also trying to help the victims, he said. The papal nuncio in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, visited Maghar twice and has forcefully pressured the Israeli government and diplomats to protect and compensate the villagers. He was “outstanding, courageous, clear,” Father Chacour said.

The nuncio spoke at a Eucharist held in the damaged church on Feb. 20, assuring Christians that the Vatican has “a watchful eye” on the site.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem urged the villagers to respond with love, not revenge and to avoid stereotypes spread by rumors.

Father Chacour was present at the Eucharist. “We started crying,” he said, “because the Christians who lost their homes, they were singing in the church, ‘Lord, make us an instrument of your peace,’ when their children cannot go to school and they have suffered so much.”

Education is his answer to the Christian families who are ready to leave their homeland and to the Muslim youth who see no future in the occupied territories. “They are under daily humiliation,” he said, “so they conclude it’s better to die courageously than to live.” The task is not only to condemn the crimes these youth commit but to get to the root of their despair.

Father Chacour himself has worked in the face of despair, creating the Mar Elias Institute in spite of opposition from the government and even his own Melkite community; he has been driven from his home, seen his family humiliated and harassed, and experienced nine wars.

But he finds reason to hope. “I’m a Christian, I’m a priest,” he said. “No matter how long the Good Friday will be, it will surely be followed by the Resurrection, and that gives us the power never to despair.”

And then he finds hope among his supporters. “I have so many Jewish friends, Muslim, Palestinian friends, and they express disgust at the violence.”

It is collaboration between these groups that is needed in Israel and the occupied territories, he said. It is unity in diversity, and this is what he teaches at his institute.

“There are many, many reasons to persevere,” he said. “Whenever I see my students in the morning, I ask them for a smile of hope.”
For information about the Mar Elias Institute and how to support Father Chacour, go to:www.pilgrimsofibillin.org.

Father Elias Chacour


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