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The Tears of a Bishop—Servant at Their Feet

   
 


Elias Chacour after his return from Lebanon following the Vatican's formal announcement of his elevation to Archbishop of Galilee.

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February 17, 2006
-by Glenn Edward Witmer

Ibillin, Israel — A man self-described as an Arab Christian Israeli Palestinian will be the first Israeli-born leader of the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East as the archbishop of Galilee.

Once known as Abuna (father, in Arabic), Elias Chacour’s title becomes “His Excellency, the Archbishop Metropolitan of the Melkite Catholic Diocese of Acco, Haifa, Nazareth and Galilee.”

“But my close friends must still call me Abuna, as before,” he said.

While his historic title, announced Feb. 8 by the Vatican and Melkite Catholic Synod, clings to the designations imposed under Ottoman Rule of the 1800s, the Archbishop’s responsibility extends to some 76,000 Melkite members throughout all of Israel. Chacour’s is the senior denominational position in the country, subject directly to Patriarch Gregorios III based in Damascus. The Melkites comprise about half of all Christians in Israel/Palestine, which also counts 40,000 Orthodox, 15,000 Roman Catholics, 1,200 Anglicans and smaller numbers of other Protestant groups. There are over one million Melkites in the world – about the same number as Anabaptists according to Mennonite World Conference figures.

The appointment puts Chacour into a new position of influence which he intends to use as best he can to pursue his passions of caring for the oppressed—and working for reconciliation among peoples, especially the diverse and historically complex interests of the people of the Middle East.

“I want to be a moderating voice in the conflict that has spilled too much blood.” Spilled between Blood Brothers, he would recall in the hugely popular book that tells his story, some of it with tears.

Chacour has known personal pain and community injustice since his birth 66 years ago in the Arab village of Biram near the Galilee border of Lebanon. His entire village was evicted during the 1948 Jewish War of Independence — “The Catastrophe”, as the Palestinians call it.. He would become a refugee in his own country.

Chacour’s life has been dedicated to working toward a new wholeness of reconciliation in the region. He started with basic education for Palestinian-Israeli boys and girls without access to schooling, then expanded services and buildings to accommodate the now 4000 students at Mar Elias Educational Institutions from many of the towns and villages of upper Galilee. Religious and ethnic backgrounds are completely interwoven in the student body.

The new Christian ‘peace university of Galilee’ opened its doors two-and-a-half years ago, the first to offer higher education to Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze [a northern sect of Islam] and taught by a faculty with a diverse religious and ethnic origins.

A few weeks before his recent elevation, Chacour, heavy gold neck chain bright against his simple black cassock, showed visitors around the sanctuary of his still incomplete Church of the Sermon on the Mount. The building is named for the New Testament theme of Christ’s servanthood, not seeking authority and power even when all was given to him.

Chacour pointed out a bishop’s chair, still with a blank back above the seat where an icon would be added. Traditionally, the icon would feature the enthroned Christ with raised hand, holding a sacred text and often shown with an almost forbidding severity. Such a teaching and authoritative Christ-figure has dominated many of the Eastern Churches through the centuries.

“It may start a revolution,” said Chacour, smiling, “but I decided not to put the (enthroned Christ) on this seat. Instead, I’ve chosen an icon of the image of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples” – an icon of Christ serving others, helping those without a voice and listening those who are not being heard. The Mennonite visitors nodded.

It is the story of Elias Chacour, but also a story they claim for their own. Chacour frequently encourages greater Anabaptist participation in his work on justice and reconciliation issues, especially at this time of growing injustice for Palestinians. It was a central message during his speaking tour of southern Ontario Mennonite churches and colleges in 2005 attended by about 5000 people.

The iconographer is rushing to complete the icon of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet so it will be ready for the Bishop’s chair in time for his upcoming service of consecration.

The Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Jerusalem extends over Israel and the Palestinian territories. Chacour will be the first Hebrew speaker to lead the archdiocese.

Glenn Edward Witmer lives in Jerusalem and is affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada Witness. He works with Elias Chacour as part of his Israel Ministries assignment. Glenn can be reached at office@mennojerusalem.org.