Arab priest works for reconciliation: Charles Richards meets Fr Chacour, who sees signs of an end to the cycle of violence between Jews and Palestinians

IN THE terraced hills of the Galilee, among the holm-oaks and ancient gnarled olive trees, a parish priest has been active, behind the headlines of violence, in promoting reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis. Father Elias Chacour was born in Galilee, in what is now Israel, and, unlike many of the Palestinians who either fled or were forced to leave, he has remained. He belongs to the Melchite Church, sometimes known as the Greek Catholics, who use the Orthodox rite but are Uniate (accept the Pope's authority).

The Christians are a small minority among the Arabs of Israel and the territories it occupies. They number about 130,000 in all and are further divided in different churches. There are some 40,000 Melchites (mainly in northern Israel), about the same number of Greek Orthodox (mainly among Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem), and 25,000 Roman Catholics, plus Protestants, Anglicans, Armenians, Copts and others.

For years, Fr Chacour has been in the forefront of promoting co-existence between the two peoples. And now he sees that there are some hopeful signs of 'Jews and Palestinians starting very hesitatingly to end the cycle of violence'.

On a brief visit to Britain, he explained that the sides were now at a turning-point and that the West should put pressure on Israel to share land with the other inhabitants. The conflict was 'national and political' he said, not religious, although he warned that the rising Islamic trend among Palestinian Muslims was due to their growing sense of frustration at what they considered an absence of justice.

The clock could not be put back. 'For my father, he could not accept that Palestine was not for the Palestinians alone. For me as a Palestinian, I accept that it is no more only for the Palestinians. That is no more feasible or reasonable. We cannot bring it back to the Palestine of 45 years ago.'

A solution whereby a Palestinian state would be established on land from which Israeli forces withdrew was not ideal, but was the least bad option, he suggested. Where would it leave people like himself, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship? Some, he said, would stay put, because of their attachment to their ancestral homes. Others would move to the putative Palestinian state. The state would serve as a bolthole, as Jews abroad know they can always go to Israel if they feel threatened.

As a Christian he believed in non-violent means - a theme he developed in his two books Blood Brothers and We belong to the land. He was on the Council for the Theology of Liberation - a group of Palestinian churchmen which looks at ways to express their national aspirations in theological terms ('We need a liberation of theology, not a theology of liberation').

But what was the balance in Christian theology between the striving for peace and turning the other cheek on the one hand, and seeking justice and freedom from oppression on the other?

Righting wrongs could lead to injustice of another kind. 'Justice cannot be absolute. You have to understand the Arab concept of sulha, of reconciliation,' he said. 'If you believe in the Roman concept of ius (law), you will kill everyone. Who on the Palestinian side does not have hands deep in blood? There are wrongs on both sides. You need a justice which provide for a modus vivendi. Justice in Arabic has to do with truth. Truth is to understand what is going on, to be realistic, and prepare a human future for our children. We should build a new monument, to symbolise that both have suffered, instead of playing the victor. We have all suffered enough.'

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