We are All Born Babies: A meeting with Archbishop Elias Chacour – Part 1

Updated: Apr 24


The Mar Elias School is named after the prophet Elias – Elijah. Established by Father Chacour in the early 1980s, it now educates more than 3500 children from diverse backgrounds and religions, (Christians, Muslim, Druze), from pre-school – kindergarten through high school.  


As part of its curriculum, the school offers a unique Forgiveness study program to senior grades, with a great hope that the seeds of Forgiveness and Reconciliation the young minds are exposed to, will take root and be carried through to their family, homes, communities, and affect the future of the region and perhaps the whole world; after all, the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.


In the words of Abuna – the bright-eyed 80-year-old Archbishop, “We are all born babies, no one is born hating another” but we are all taught by our families, tribes, communities, and society what and whom we should hate.  It goes so far back to the past that no one even remembers why we should hate them, and the new generation of innocent babies born today continues to fall prey to the same ancestral thinking…  And then the fight goes on…


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PART I – WE ARE ALL BORN BABIES


Feminenza and Abuna share a hopeful vision of a different future, possible to achieve through the ripple effect of educating the young and propagating the seeds of update and upgrade in human society.


Father Elias: …I think we have something in common that no one can deny, we all were born babies, and all in the image of God.  This is our identity, our Allah, our dignity, and our life.  And we discover our original identity that we were born babies and discover that we are brothers and sisters, and I am very honored to have you here.


Mary – I read both your books, ‘Blood Brothers’ and ‘We belong to the Land’, and I was touched, very deeply touched…  And I really wanted to meet this “other man from Galilee”. I was touched by your story, how as a young boy you would walk the hills and you would talk to your Compatriot.


Father Elias: My Champion (see note).


Mary – Your Champion, exactly.  And I wonder whether even today if that’s still something that motivates you.


Father Elias: It’s even much more…with the very complicated situation we have here, concerning Jews and Arabs, and we are really very much concentrated on teaching our boys and girls to keep the hope alive.  To keep the hope and to keep their ideal for justice that comprises forgiveness and reconciliation. This is our main – almost obsession.  And I’m very happy to see the reaction of the children. Here we have 3500 students.  I don’t hide from you that the school was meant first to be a Christian school.  … the Sermon on the Mount, I hope you have some idea about that.  And I asked myself seriously if you are really for Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount, how can you make a school, a Christian school closed in itself?  I need it to open up in order that our deeds will explain our faith. And I opened the door for Muslim boys and girls.  And they started coming.  


Imagine in the year 2000, I opened the school like I do every day now.  I go in front of the elementary school.  I greet every child.  “How are you?  Did you sleep well?  How are your parents?  You are happy that you came back?  Are you happy?” Only that… and he goes “I am very happy”, and I am happier. 


That day I came… all the Jewish children… we have my children, Christians, and Muslims, and a huge bus was coming down, it was the Jewish children.  I got very scared.  Did I bring the devil into my camp?   How can I subdivide these Jews into 4 or 5 persons in each classroom, with 30 Palestinians who mostly are people from destroyed villages, or have their land confiscated, or they live in very, very, very primitive situations because of deprivation, and they are all angry?  How can I allow 4 Jews to live with 30 Palestinians? They might kill them; they might cut them into pieces…  


The bus arrived, I said, “Don’t move, stay in the bus please”. I ordered 4 buses empty.  They came.  I loaded these 4 buses with my children.  The Christians and the Muslims.  And I looked at the Jewish bus, (sorry to say that) …. I asked myself, “Boy, can you love these people now as you love your other children?”  I did not give an answer.  I just jumped into the bus.  I greeted them.  I said, “You will subdivide yourselves into 4 groups.  And you will go into the buses.  You will spend the day on Mount Carmel in the fresh air.  When you come back, we will see what we can do”.  They went with the teachers… sure the teachers were very alarmed and alert about the situation.  They came back at 4 o’clock.  I was there to count how many were hurting, were insulted, were ill-treated.  The buses stopped; the doors opened….  No one of the children went out on the steps of the door.  They all jumped out like little monkeys…  It was very, very clear, I can swear, they have forgotten that they were Jews and Arabs. They have discovered that they were just kids.  Oh, bless these just kids.   We had a great year in the ninth grade, but in the tenth grade, problems started.  The Jews were supposed to go two days a month for pre–military training.  And the first lesson they said they received, as they said to me, was that they will have the privilege of becoming soldiers when they finish high school. Why? in order to defend their country against terrorists surrounding them…  And who were the terrorists? The  Palestinians, so I am a terrorist.  


The children would come the next morning, living with 3500 children, all Palestinians, and they would look, where are the terrorists? And then 11th grade became even more difficult.  They were supposed to go for proper military training, GADNA – and in the 12th grade it became impossible, so we stopped having Jewish children.  We kept our Jewish teachers.  And we tried to substitute that by creating a relationship with Jewish schools to exchange students and to receive them and to send our students there, and we have a few other Jewish schools who are in connection with us.  


We are dreaming to have this mutual relation with Jews and Palestinians. Because if you place one Jew here, one Muslim there, one Christian here, one Druze there, they will learn a few things, they will discover a few things together. They will stumble against the same problems together.  Then you can have them sit down together and drive the common future you want for all of you.  They will do a miracle.  Unfortunately, no… education is still segregated in Israel.  And I’m fighting to have an integrated system of schools. I know that at the end we will have it.  We will not live in a neighborhood ignoring each other.  We will live together in a neighborhood.  


So, that is the school.  In fact it’s a dream, it’s a vision that I was given by the villagers here, because we were organizing summer camps for the kids.  The first summer camp was supposed to be with a minimum number of children, 500 children. 


I am convinced that we are condemned to this between the Jews and the Palestinians – either we shall die together, God forbid, or we shall live together. And I want to survive.  I don’t want the Jew to be killed and I don’t want to be killed either.  And that requires a lot of work and a lot of education.  But it is not impossible. It has been always possible in the past.  The Jews have suffered, we were known as the Palestinian Jews.  When I go there to buy some fish, in that street where the fish is in Tiberius, they all call “Abuna, come and buy from me”, exactly like our Arabs…


Father Elias: Let’s go to Feminenza, it’s much more important.  Tell me what you do?


Mary: I can tell you a few things.  We started about 20 years ago, from the standpoint of looking at the development and the inner empowerment of women.  Very quickly we found ourselves working in Kenya, where we met organizations, NGOs, men and women that were working for the benefit of their communities, working for the young girls and so on.  And the theme of forgiveness began to become a very important issue for me at the time. Because it seemed to be at the root of everybody’s problems.  

So it became a very profound study and research for me. It wouldn’t let me go.  And I think for about 2 years I was having every argument in myself about forgiveness.  I would have this internal argument in my head over and over and over again, and I had to work it through until I got to a place in myself where I realized that this was bigger than me, this was more important than my wounds, my hurts, my likes, my dislikes.  That this was something the world needed, that humanity needed. And that you have to basically be the bigger person, again and again and again and again.  So, from that moment, we started to develop this training programme and we ended up producing something called the Seven Pillars of Forgiveness. 

One of the things in the forgiveness work that we do is we try to help people challenge the stereotypes.  The “us and them” and learn how do you re-humanize the enemy and all of those really important issues. 

 

Father Elias: What does all that have to do with women? <