Mar Elias and Haifa
“If taking our side would mean for you to start hating the Jews, we do not need your friendship. We do not need another enemy here – we need a common friend.” Archbishop Elias Chacour
With Mount Tabor, site of the Ascension of Christ, off in the distance, we set ourselves on a westbound course toward Haifa this morning. On the way, we stopped at Mar Elias Educational Institutions, a renowned and respected facility for children K-12 plus the Prophet Elias College in I’billin. Founded out of the vision of one man, Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the school has 4,500 students on a 9-building campus crowned by a beautiful church on a hill. While its mission is as a Christian school, only 22% of the students are actually Christians as there are so few Christians left in Israel. The majority of the students are Muslim, because, as the archbishop, or “Abuna” as he is called, says, “Because we are Christians, we opened our door to the Muslims. We did not want them to join us; we wanted them to come enjoy with us.” 78% of students continue on to university, mostly in the US because Palestinian students wait, on average, three years to be admitted to Israeli universities because, as he put it, “if Israeli students are required to enter the military after high school, why should Palestinians be allowed to go straight to their universities?”
Abuna spoke for well over an hour about his own life and the struggles in which he has been engaged in order to build this school, and much of it is told in his book “Blood Brothers.” The story of the end of the British mandate when he was 7-years-old was particularly compelling. Knowing that Israeli soldiers were coming to his town, his father, a respected member of the community, went with other elders to greet them, invited them into their homes, and allowed them to stay with their families. After a period of time, the elders wondered when the soldiers might be leaving, so went to speak with the commander who told them to pack a few things, go away for two weeks, and then they would be able to return. The commander even put this in writing, so the people left, trusting that the commitment made to them would be honored. Two weeks later, the people of the town returned, only to be told that they were not ever to enter that area again. The men were all arrested and taken from the village but later returned. Several successful appeals to the Israeli High Court ensued, but the military refused to honor the orders. Abuna later saw his entire village strafed with bombs, utterly destroyed.
With this as a backdrop, it is all the more remarkable that he went on to envision a school for all the children of I’billin. At that time, in the late 1970s, 75% of Arab citizens of Israel were under the age of 27 and 50% were under 14. In order for them to have any chance at a better life, he realized that this 50% needed to be educated. His godson, Elias Abu Ghanima, now principal of the school, told us how, when he was a child visiting his godfather at the church, Abuna told him to look up to the hill commonly known as the Hill of Ogres, a dark, unsafe area that towered over the town. “What do you see,” he asked? “The Hill of Ogres,” Elias replied. “In one year, the best Catholic high school in all of Israel will be on that hill,” Abuni promised him. Elias admits that he thought his godfather was dreaming, but it came to pass, and he graduated from that very school and is now its head.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this school visit was the curiosity and delightful greetings we received from the children in the hallways and on the school yard, wanting to know our names and telling us theirs, clearly practicing their English and chatting excitedly as we took pictures with them. It’s all the more heart wrenching to know that, when they are of an age to carry an Israeli identification, it will be marked with an “02” for Palestinian rather than an “01” for Jewish Israeli, and, while their plight is not as constricted and dire as the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza, they experience blatant discrimination every day in having their identification checked, their inability to acquire permits for various necessities of living (Abuna struggled for years to get the permits for the school), and restricted job opportunities (there are 200 faculty at the school, 100 with PhDs and 90 with Masters degrees because they are not hired at Israeli universities).
Both inspired and disheartened by our visit, we completed the short drive to Haifa, the main port of Israel. Taking the scenic route up the hills that rise above the Mediterranean, we paid a brief visit to the Bahá’í shrine and its beautifully landscaped grounds that overlook Haifa. A short distance away, we arrived at our lodging for the evening, the Stella Maris Guest House which claims to house in its basilica the cave in which the prophet Elijah hid from Jezebel after killing the 400 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). We shared a lovely Eucharist together before dinner and had a time of sharing and debriefing after the meal in preparation for a meeting tomorrow with a representative from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. It will be our last full day on this trip, a bittersweet event indeed.