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Living Stones
 


God's love in action in a torn land: a reflection by Baptist church member Keith Bevis on reading Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour (with David Hazard) after meeting the author during a visit to the Holy Land

 

 

Blood Brothers1Like many millions of Christians before me, I have visited a torn land. I have walked in Bethlehem, in Jericho, in Jerusalem, in Capernaum and in Nazareth. I have seen valleys and mountains, shrines and churches, rocks and stones.

But I also met the living stones with a story to tell. One such is Elias Chacour, Emeritus Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. He talked about his life during our visit. So, in reading his book Blood Brothers, I have the advantage of hearing the author’s own words and reminiscences and drawing my own impressions from the land itself.

My thoughts have been thrown back to another book deeply rooted in this part of the world: Not in God’s Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Now Lord Sacks). Both authors confront us with the ongoing conflicts that fester around politics and religion. In my review of Not in God’s Name (published in The Baptist Times in August 2015) I found in Sacks’ exposition of the Old Testament narrative such a clear path through the fault lines of Middle Eastern history. From the sibling rivalries between Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, his discussion moved to societies and showed how religion binds and often divides communities. Sacks showed how the religious texts themselves park the inherent evil associated with the times in which they were written and move on.

But the seeds of what he calls "altruistic evil" live on in the dangerous myths and are capable of tearing communities apart. All three Abrahamic religions have suffered.

On the other hand, Chacour’s narrative is partly 20th century history, partly his own story; but running through it is a deep, deep embracing of the Beatitudes. His understanding and demonstration of the love of God is rooted in his own family background and history. He had learnt so many of the Bible stories at his mother’s knee. When he talks of his father, we see not just a simple olive farmer, but a man of God who lived that love and taught his son the history of the Church from its earliest times.

With a twinkle in his eye, Chacour tells a story (not in his book) of being met at the beginning of a tour by a group of American pastors. One enthusiastic young pastor asked him about his conversion and who would have been the missionaries sent to his country. Chacour explained patiently that his family had long since been Christian.

The pastor pressed him for more information. 'Well, we live in Galilee and one day another Galilean man came to us with the Good News,' Chacour replied. 

'But when?' the young man implored.

'About two thousand years ago.' 

Born a few years before the creation of Israel, Chacour’s life meshes with the most significant events in this land. He brings those events to life again, some deeply distressing but in others we see a glimpse of hope. There is the clearing of Palestinian villages, including his own village of Biram in Galilee, by the newly arrived Zionist soldiers, so different from the Jewish neighbours he then knew as a child.

He tells how in 1950 at Passover, some 50,000 Iraqi Jews were celebrating by strolling along the Tigris when a bomb was hurled from a passing car - no injuries but a rash of fear. Leaflets appeared and emigration started. With more bombs and some deaths the rumours exploded and Jews started fleeing to Israel. However, when the perpetrators were found, it was the Haganah, the Zionist underground, who had bombed their own people into panic.

It was years later that the chief rabbi of Iraq, Sassoon Khedurri, called on a journalist to tell the world about Zionism, that the Iraqi Jews felt sympathy for the Palestinian people and that they too had been terrorised by the Zionists. 'By mid-1949 the big propaganda guns were already going off in the United States. American dollars were going to save Iraqi Jews – whether Iraqi Jews needed saving or not. … Why didn’t someone point out that the solid, responsible leadership of Iraqi Jews believed this [Iraq] to be their country? … The Iraqi government was being accused of holding the Jews against their will … But if the government attempted to suppress Zionist agitation attempting to stampede Iraqi Jews, it was again accused of discrimination.' [1]

The influx of Jews into Israel was paralleled by the displacement of Palestinians. Many found their way to refugee camps in Lebanon, but even there was not to be safe. In September 1982, Chacour had become weary. He had been seriously contemplating taking up a post in Europe.  Just when he was preaching in a church in Germany, the news came that hundreds of refugees, men, women and children, had been massacred in the Sabra and Shatila camps. The multinational peacekeeping troops had been dismissed by Israeli Defence troops who sealed off the camps, shooed off the newsmen and then let in Lebanese Christian Militia who shot everyone in sight.

Under pressure from the international community and from his own citizens, Prime Minister Begin eventually granted an investigation. His troops did no killing but were found to be complicit in the planning. For Chacour, any thoughts of leaving Palestine and taking up a post in Europe immediately vanished. He needed to be with his people and he is still there today.

Putting Christ’s love for Jew and Palestinian into practice and living out the Beatitudes has brought other events too. In August 1972 a remarkable procession took place. After eighteen months of planning and numerous letters, Jews and Palestinians marched together along the route of the 1967 Six Day War’s victory parade right into Jerusalem and up to the doors of the Knesset. Chacour’s Bishop announced he was requesting a meeting with Golda Meir to discuss reconciliation, but the Knesset’s doors remained closed even as some marchers stayed and fasted outside.

A different march formed in February 1980. Chacour and a band of Palestinian children, each carrying a new olive sapling, set out to go and plant them amongst the ruins of old Biram as a sign of peace. But a new road block with barbed wire and jeeps barred their way. 'We have orders not to let you pass,' they were told. 

The work has not stopped. This love is ongoing and practical. It has built schools and now even a University where Jew, Christian, Muslim, Israeli, Arab can all study together.

So, in this strange, torn country, I have seen the daily ritual of three oil lamps being cleaned, refilled, lit and lowered down by chain through the hole in the Mosque floor into the cavern containing the tombs of Abraham and Sarah. I have seen the paper prayers placed between the stones of the Wailing Wall. I have seen Christians kissing and stroking bronze statues, rocks and stones with frenzied passion. Above all I have met the living stones showing love for Jew and Palestinian and holding both in their prayers. This is a practical love far deeper than we sometimes imagine in our comfortable worship.

Another review of Not in God’s Name stated: '[We] can surely agree unequivocally that the violence we see today can never be ‘In God’s name’, and we live at such a time where this message, cogently set out by Jonathan [Sacks], must be embraced and broadcast with urgency by all believers.' So thank you, Jonathan, for explaining in such depth and with such urgency the ‘WHY’.

Thank you, Elias, for showing us through your life, your work and in Blood Brothers, that the reality of the Beatitudes and God’s love in action continue to demonstrate the challenging ‘HOW’.  
 



[1] Chacour cites these words from Elmer Berger, Who Knows Better Must Say So, The Institute of Palestinian Studies, Beirut, 64, itself cited in David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch:The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1977, 162-63.


 

Dr Keith Bevis is an engineer and a long time member of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church



 




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