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Monday, October 24, 2016
Christmas letter from Abuna Elias Chacour, Archbishop of Galilee
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 To all our Friends: PEACE One more unique celebration of Christmas is upon us. A year has passed and we are still on track. A year has passed yet not without leaving behind strongly vivid memories. Presence with all my people On February 25th I was consecrated Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all of Galilee. This is my official title and practically speaking I am archbishop of all Israel for the Melkite Catholic Church in the Holy Land. It is the largest church in Israel comprising about 78,000 Palestinian Arab Christians citizens of Israel. The total number of Christians still remaining, but continually diminishing, is around 147,000. Following my consecration in the Church of the Sermon on the Mount, the first week was dedicated to receiving many hundreds of Christians, Moslems, Druze and Jews who came to present their congratulations. At the same time Great Lent began with the long daily prayers all over the Diocese. I insisted on attending these prayers every day in a different parish. I almost lost my voice, but I had my presence with my people. Presence is far more important than speeches. Calming the storm in Nazareth My first experience as a leader of the largest Christian community in the Holy Land, took place a week after my consecration, when a poor Jewish family decided to desecrate the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. They had caused untold fear and panic among worshippers by detonating small explosive devices during the Friday night Lenten prayers. I rushed there from Haifa to find thousands of Christians and Moslems surrounding the church to protest against this act of vandalism. Together with other bishops and with the leaders of the Moslem community we successfully calmed the crowds thus avoiding any reaction or any act of violence. We took under our protection the miserable family who vandalized the basilica and delivered them to the police. Our efforts however did not deter the police from throwing tear gas bombs into the crowd and we were the crowd. I inhaled the poisonous gas and next morning the ambulance was called to help me breathing. A new wave of delegations for solidarity streamed to the archbishopric. Many hundreds of Jews came to express their shock and their rejection of such immoralities. Many Rabbis came also to manifest their solidarity. Some of them joined with me to visit the Basilica in Nazareth. Holy responsibilities Through all of this my major responsibility was to be present with my parishes all over Galilee. During the forty days of Great Lent I visited all forty five parishes and took part in their prayers. This was spiritually uplifting and physically exhausting. I wish this was the only thorn in my body for without knowing I was unconsciously accumulating exhaustion. I understood better now the meaning of the saying: "The Spirit is strong but the body is weak". Surprises were hidden ahead of me. I will tell later why I can now say: 'Providentially I am still alive'. Celebration, mission, revival One of my first duties after my election as Archbishop was to attend the gathering of all the bishops for the Holy Synod in Lebanon. As soon as I returned I focused my attention on my brother priests. On the eve of my arrival back all the Melkite clergy gathered in Ibillin for our first meeting in order to start afresh with their new bishop. It was a very encouraging meeting and since then every month we have a full day meeting for all the clergy. We have also had an eight day pilgrimage to the holy cities in Syria. We were blessed with a full six days' retreat far from any daily preoccupation. It was a life enriching experience for all of us. Right before Easter, and for the first time, all church committees from around the diocese were invited for a day's reflection on the new situation with their new bishop. Two hundred and ninety lay men and women spent a whole day at the facilities of the church on the Mount of Light in Ibillin. This meeting with the leaders of the community was to be repeated later after Easter for an Easter celebration and banquet together with all the clergy. That was a memorable day never to be forgotten. Another great day was when we invited for the first time ever all the wives of our married clergy to a gathering. This was a discovery of an ignored treasure in the diocese. These ladies could be real missionaries beside their husbands. We shall meet again with these ladies and with their husbands. We have also invited all our Christians who are specialized in archaeology to contribute to the revival of their church by linking us all back to our roots in the history of this country. We have an historical story of salvation. It has to do with a certain territory, a certain geography and with concrete historical events. Our faith is not only heavenly faith it is also certain events in our Galilee, in our history which we do not know well enough. We are the only Christian community who can say: The Word of God is here among us, from a lady who is our daughter, from a village in our country, was made man and dwelled among us. Concerts were organized at the church of Sermon on the Mount .The last one was a performance of Handel's "The Messiah". In June graduation ceremonies for the end of the school year were prepared with special skill and care. I attended all the graduation parties in all our schools, and as well in September, at the beginning of the school year I met with our teachers in every school of the diocese. An Archbishop is solicited from many directions to attend meetings and conferences all over the world. It was already a heavy schedule before I became the Archbishop. Now it is many times more than before. I have had to learn to say 'Sorry' when I can not attend this meeting or that conference. Reform, reorganization and transparency The diocese needed a drastic reform and it began right away following my consecration as archbishop. I saw the importance of shifting our clergy from their parishes and traditional functions. The majority saw the importance of such change and said: 'This is a good step but shift others not me'. The honeymoon for the Archbishop had come to an end. It is not easy for a priest who was 25 years in the same parish to change to a new one. Never such shifts have been made in our diocese. In fact I had remained in the same parish for over 37 years Re-organizing the diocese meant also financial transparency. This is hard to do. We were not used to transparency. Every thing was hidden - a bundle of secrets. Very few people had the right to know the reality of the finance situation. I wanted clarity and started with the diocesan schools. So far each school was like an island with no relation to any other body in the diocese not even to the Archbishopric. Our schools had become like private dominions with extra-territorial authority. Centres of power have been formed around them. Manipulation of funds, abuse of authority, and wide spread nepotism were practiced, not always devoid from real dangerous corruption. Every body knew about it, knew who and where, but nobody dared to do anything to repair or correct the situation. But now I am in charge and I cannot accept the unacceptable. I need integrity in my diocese. I decided to do everything possible in order to put the church back on track. Threats and conspiracies are felt from different sides. So what? Do we need to live no matter what?!! There are limits. Could we continue to tolerate the corruption? Isn't it better to die honest than to live a coward? I might succeed making drastic reform within my church - may be I will not. So what! I shall do every thing possible and never give up. Every day I live is an extra favour from the Lord. I was supposed to live a maximum two to three months had I not discover the urgency of having a surgical intervention to open my carotid arteries which were 90% blocked. This was discovered providentially through the compassionate care of my friends Azzam and Shadia Kanaan from Kalamazoo but who are originally from Nablus in the West Bank. A new reality at MEEI At MEEI a new reality started with the 'departure' of Abuna from the daily life of the Institutions. The post-Abuna era started with my consecration. As Archbishop of Galilee (all Israel) now heading the largest Christian Church in the Holy Land I had to relinquish responsibilities. It was done slowly and smoothly and I am pleased to affirm that the team running the MEEI is strong and motivated. We acknowledge with gratitude the important role of those who lead our schools: Kindergarten and elementary school, currently with 950 children, are headed by Miss Nawar Musallam who is capably assisted by Mr. Geries Makhoul. Secondary school with approximately 1350 students is headed by Mr. Assem Khoury and Mr. Ramzi Musallam. They are assisted by Elias Abu-Ganimeh, Johnny Mansour, Fawaz Haj and Naief Hammoud. Technical College with 365 students, is headed by Mr A'as Atrash who is assisted by Mrs. Amal Barakeh. School for Gifted Children is headed by Mrs. Inayah Owadiah. Presently the total number is around 110 students. This number varies slightly every year. Teachers' Training Center for teachers in-service, headed by Mrs. Neda'a Oumran, has an average of 360 teachers. University College headed by Professor Raed Mouallem and Professor George Kanazeh has a total of 350 students. We live in hope that the Higher Council of Education in Israel will grant us the recognition and accreditation as a full Israeli academic institute. After this step we could hope for hundreds more students each year. The Department of Theology and Holy Land studies headed by Dr Geries Khoury has 24 students in first year and 18 in second year. Here too we are expecting the recognition and accreditation from the Higher Council of Education. You will notice that we are still living on the Land of Promises with regards to the University and necessary resources for the other schools. Except for he High school we are like all the other private schools in the Arab Israeli community, which happen to be Christian schools. MEEI is struggling against the Ministry of Education in order to enjoy our full citizenship rights. Indeed for the elementary school level we receive government subsidies equivalent to 65 % of the allocation to governmental schools. We are denied all subsidies for development and equipment while governmental schools are given 100% support. That is why we overburden our parents with paying tuition for their children. Despite this penury of funds, according to the statistics of the Israeli Ministry of Education, our Christian schools are rated first among all Israeli schools. Four among the first six schools in Israel are private schools and three of these happen to be our Melkite Catholic schools. The number of students achieving success in the final governmental matriculation exam is as follows: Christian students 76 %; Jewish students 56 %; Moslem students 34% followed by the Bedouin and the Druze students with lower percentages. . This year, a total of 15 Arab students were accepted for medicine in the Technion Institute in Haifa, nine of whom are from Mar Elias Educational Institutions. When Abuna had to go last month to hospital for serious surgery, he discovered that six out of eleven surgeons acting in the operating theatre were graduates from Mar Elias Educational Institutions. At the beginning of December our directors of the high school and the head of the sports department were invited to Ashkelon to receive the first award in sports for all of Israel. At MEEI we are going ahead with better achievements and stronger hope. The Birth of Christ: how can we rejoice? At MEEI we want to celebrate the Birth of Christ, we want to sing with the Angels. Yes we want to join the shepherds on their journey to the manger to see what the angels have announced to them. We want to listen to the Angels singing, "Glory be to God in the highest and peace to all people of good will". We want to distribute gifts to our children and to have a banquet for the teachers. We want to proclaim aloud that we live in peace together Moslems, Christians, Druze and Jews at Mar Elias but we cannot be disconnected from our environment. We cannot be intentionally deaf to the cries of children in the Occupied Territories, nor to the tears and cries of women in Iraq. It is too loud to be ignored. How can we rejoice when over a million Lebanese people are made refugees, their homes demolished, their hope broken and their families dismantled? It is heartbreaking to be un-consoled, forgotten. We are invited by the Lord to cry with those who weep and to console those who mourn. How can we disconnect ourselves from what is around us? Our deepest wish is to believe that the Prince of Peace is born. HOW CAN WE DO THAT? Who will listen to our whispers? The sound of rockets and of katoushas is too loud. The alarm sirens are deafening .Who would listen to our whispers? On most TV chains news and statements of potent politicians incite to hatred, to violence, to revenge, to revolt, to racism. A culture of death is all around while we hang on the Cross of our Compatriot the Man from Galilee whispering with an agonized voice: 'Father forgive them they do not know what they do!' No matter what, or rather because of what surrounds us, we do believe that the whispers of the Crucified One are stronger than the bombs of the war lords. They cannot be left alone to make history. God is also at work to form history. While violence and explosions destroy, humility and love make roots deep in the hearts of men and women of good will. A whisper of hope emerges from perseverance in faith and determination - we are making a difference! Abuna received the Israel Rotary Award for Tolerance in the presence of over 450 Rotarians most of whom are Jewish. The short speech Archbishop Chacour delivered was substantially the following: "I am not a stone thrown away in the desert, nor I am an island lost in the big stormy ocean. You know the tree by its fruit. I am a son of the Church. I am a living stone in the big building of my Church. I was educated to look for the common values between human beings, to foster the positive side of our nature. Good in human beings is stronger than evil. We are not condemned to live and to coexist together. Rather we are privileged and challenged to live together, to be proactive in promoting the common values which unite us. Aren't we all here present - Jews, Moslems, Druze and Christians - the proud descendants of a certain Iraqi citizen, called by the Jews "our Father Abraham", by the Christians "Abraham the Patriarch", and by the Moslems "the beloved friend of God"? We are rich with this variety, like a most beautiful mosaic. Our calling in the Holy Land is to deliver what no other nation can or is able to deliver to present day humanity: A sign of Hope. None among us is able to deliver this alone. The Jews are severely handicapped alone, the Moslem not less, and the Christians are equally handicapped alone. It is when we accept to take each others' hands and to go ahead together with a welcoming acceptance of our differences that we can provide and deliver hope for humanity. We can acknowledge and celebrate the unity within our diversity. We would then stop shouting "terror" everywhere and making wars where we do not even know where the enemy might be. Often our enemy is in our own mind and in our distorted conscience. We continue making wars against "a self created monster." John Paul II knew that there is evil in humanity but he did not bother to declare war against evil. He spent his time and his life encouraging life and promoting hope and dignity. He thought it a pity and a waste of time to wage war against evil while it is so urgent to spend one's own time enhancing and building hope. Our political leaders shall die one day. They will not gather around them anything else other than what they have promoted. They die and shall be buried. While John Paul II started living after he died." During the traditional banquet on the 23rd of December we shall sing the hymn of Christmas: "Christ is born: give him glory! Christ has come down from heaven: receive him! Christ is now on earth: exalt Him you earth, sing to the Lord you nations, praise Him in joy, for he has been glorified" To you dear beloved Friends: Happy Christmas and blessed New Year 2007 Abuna Elias Chacour President, Mar Elias Educational Institutions & Archbishop of Galilee (Israel)
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