There is an interesting project going on in Ibillin. For a few years, the Melkite Catholic community in Ibillin has been trying to gain accreditation for what is the first Catholic College in Galilee. Ironic! There are thousands of accredited Catholic Colleges and Universities throughout the world, and none in the land where Christ originated.
The college has originated as a branch of the University of Indianapolis, and is now at the point where it can seek its independence, though it is far from having the towering citadels of libraries and research facilities of a big university. They’ll be happy to start with degrees in Occupational Therapy and Computer Science.
During my entire stay in Israel, I have been observing the pursuit of this endeavor, and living with those who are working passionately about its future. Why do they work so hard? Because they see the success of the college as the best possible solution to curb the imminent extinction of Christians who live in the Holy Land.
Ever since the Israeli displacement and oppression of Arab people, there has been a mass exodus of Arab Christians from Israel. This exodus is largely due to lack of opportunity for good education and good jobs within the Israeli society (for people of Arab decent). As more and more young Arab Christians study abroad, their better employment options remain abroad. If they return to Israel, their options will be greatly limited, and so the choice is frequently to emigrate. This choice is unofficially encouraged by the Israeli government, who will then have has one less Arab to manage. It is a kind of subversive displacement.
But the consequence of this emigration is the endangered state of the Melkite rite of the Catholic Church. As Arab Christians emigrate, they rarely keep the customs and rites of their homeland in a world that does not trust or support their culture. The last Arab Christians are the shrinking 2% of Arabs present in Galilee, which will be gone if something doesn’t change soon.
Mar Elias College creates educational opportunities for Christians within Galilee, and affects the job market in Galilee so that there is can be an economy that can support the continued presence of Arab Christians in Galilee.
This whole plan is, in part, the vision of Archbishop Abuna Chacour, who is easily the most significant leader for peace and justice that I have met in my life. His passion for his people is extraordinary. His courage, seemingly boundless. His boldness, profound. His reputation is broad, and is well noted for his two books Blood Brothers and We Belong to the Land. Oh… and he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
But let me tell you why I am most intrigued by this man. It comes from knowing many bishops across the world and then witnessing the manner in which Chacour exercises the authority of that office in Galilee. Abuna Chacour has only been Archbishop for a little over a year, but already he has acted in ways as Archbishop that has a different tone to it than the average bishop.
When I met with him today, we were in a group of people. He discussed with us how he has refused to accept additional titles to his name when people address him. He can officially be called “monsignor,” “my lord,” “your grace.’’ Etc. He asks people to call him Abuna. He wants no other title, or advantage, than to serve his people with the love that he has for them, as a spiritual father.
He realizes that his churches are too small for his congregations, and people have stopped coming to Mass because there is no space. He has called his priests to say Mass outside of the church buildings if necessary to accommodate the people, and use the sky and the heavens as the ceiling for the sacred liturgy. (This is widely done for special celebrations of the Latin Rite, but unprecedented in the Melkite and Greek influenced traditions of the Church)
He discussed some of the reforms he is doing in the Archdiocese, including the reforms of the Catholic School system. He knows something about Canon Law. He is the bishop. He has the ability to veto any decision that any consulting board provides to him about the operation of his diocese. Despite his unlimited power in this regard, he has specifically drafted the committee for the educational reforms in such a way that he has only one vote among the other members of the committee, and therefore has foregone the rite of veto.
When I asked him about this decision, he indicated that it was time for the Church to grow up and realize that he was just a man. He has more power when he shares his power with others, and he realizes that there is no sense in him making decisions which he knows nothing about. He needs to trust others to make good decisions with them and not for them.
Abuna Chacour has a clear understanding that the fights between denominations within Christianity, and even within governments, are usually fought over issues of an individual’s power, and as long as people cling to power, there can be no peace. He sees his role as one that must not cling to power, but cling to serving his fellow human being. This was made very clear to me when I visited the Church of the Sermon on the Mount in Ibillin. This is a church that Abuna oversaw the construction personally. The presider’s chair in which Abuna sits, has an icon above it, as is tradition. The icons I have seen over other similar chairs are images of Christ glorified, judging, or kingly, but above Abuna’s chair, is the picture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. A strong statement about the vision he has for the role of an Archbishop.
Abuna Chacour believes that Christianity will be the instrument that brings peace to the Middle East. Not because all the Jews and Muslims will be converted to Christianity, but because Christianity represents the link between the abrasive relationships between Jews and Muslims. The Arab Christians speak Arabic and know the Arabic culture. They also participate in the philosophical systems inherent in the Western world, the Christian worldview. The Christians must therefore serve as ambassadors to the Arab Muslims and to the Western world and mediate the very difficult conflicts that occur in their distrust and misunderstandings. Abuna related to a group of us that the Prime Minister of Israel, in a private meeting, has confirmed to him the important role that the Archbishop, and Arab Christians, must play in bringing peace to Israel, and the region.
But he cannot succeed if there are no more Arab Christians. If the descendants of those who were the first Christians ever since the time of Jesus, are gone, there will be no one to enact this mission. The potential of that loss, which is of great sorrow to Christians for sentimental reasons, is an even greater loss to the potential of peace in the volatile region.
All year long, I have made it my goal to pray for and to promote solidarity. Solidarity in the Catholic Church, and the Church’s teaching about solidarity with all people. Nothing could have touched my heart more than to hear Archbishop Abuna Chacour’s words today, “Solidarity with Arab Christians is the only thing that will save us from extinction.”
His people need support, and yes, if anyone has a couple thousand dollars to help him, it will be well used to develop Mar Elias College or other useful projects, but more important to him is the work of bringing Catholics (and Christians) around the world knowledge about the presence of the Arab Catholics in Galilee. He wants to foster relationships of support for Arab Catholics. His people have lost their identity, and need their identity restored, so that they can survive. They need to know that they are not alone, and with this knowledge to move away from isolation, and toward solidarity.