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Praying for Peace in the Middle East

Meeting Elias Chacour and other Holy Land Christians helps people pray differently for all who suffer in Palestine and Israel.

There’s a reason that few worship services include prayers for the Holy Land—other than a vague “and we pray for peace in the Middle East.” It’s because most Christians don’t quite know why Israel is such a hotspot.

When Glasgow University Media Group researchers asked people of different ages, incomes, and countries what the words Israeli-Palestinian conflict call to mind, the top responses in all groups were violence and suicide bombings. The researchers asked 49 American journalism and media students about who’s occupying the occupied territories and what nationality the settlers are. Only 29 percent knew that the Israelis are both the occupiers and the settlers.

Because current news is often delivered in sound bites with little context, some of us resort to stereotypes and either-or thinking to make sense of it all. But Elias Michael Chacour, author of Blood Brothers and We Belong to the Land, doesn’t fit into the categories Christians often use to understand the Holy Land. Hearing his stories may change how you pray.

Made in God’s image

Chacour believes that how you understand someone’s identity affects how (or whether) you pray for them. As he tells his story around the world, people are surprised to hear him describe himself as a Palestinian Arab Christian and Israeli citizen.

Chacour was born in Biram, a Palestinian village in upper Galilee, in a house that had been in his family since the 1500s. His first language was Arabic, though he now speaks 11 languages. Biram was an entirely Christian village. Though listeners often assume that Chacour’s family must have converted from Islam, Arabs were among the first to be called Christian and to be persecuted for their faith. A century ago, about a quarter of people living in the Levant—present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), and Syria—were Christians.

“Our worship started three days after Jesus was crucified, on the day of resurrection. From the empty tomb came our daily belief that we are all to become adopted children of God,” he said at the 2010 Calvin Symposium on Worship. He is now the Melkite Catholic archbishop of Galilee.

After the United Nations declared Israel an independent country in 1948, 460 Arab villages were emptied or destroyed. Arabs and Jews killed and maimed each other. More than 700,000 Palestinians, including most clergy and seminary professors, fled abroad or to nearby countries. The Chacours had no means to flee so became refugees five kilometers from their ancestral home—which is why they are considered Arab citizens of Israel.

“It’s as if I bear in myself all the contradictions of being Palestinian, Arab, Christian, and an Israeli citizen. But I wasn’t born an Arab,” Chacour said.

He paused, then added, “My identity is a born baby human being. All the rest is addendum. We are children of God no matter who we are. We are made in God’s image. Therefore we all have rights and should be treated with dignity. Christ came to restore us to that identity.”

Blessed are the peacemakers

Chacour said he grew up “saturated with the physical presence of Jesus.” Bible stories about removable roof tiles, fig trees, grape vines, sheep, lost coins, and weddings mirrored his life. He calls Jesus “our Compatriot, our Champion, our Friend, our Man from Galilee” and speaks of belonging to the land—“not the land belongs to me—because it is God’s land.”

His parents taught him to value peace, justice, reconciliation, and sumud (Arabic for “steadfastness”) in following the sabeel (Arabic for “the way”) that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

When Michael Chacour learned that Jewish soldiers would visit Biram, he explained to little Elias that these soldiers had survived terrible suffering in Europe. Michael bought a lamb he could barely afford so the family could roast it and welcome the newcomers into the harmony that Christians, Jews, and Muslims had enjoyed together for centuries in Galilee.

Within weeks, the soldiers confiscated their property. Israeli high courts ruled several times in favor of Biram villagers’ right to return, but the military never allowed it.

“My father said that hatred and violence are like a bucket of stinky garbage on someone’s head. If you return hatred with hatred, it’s like taking another bucket of that same stinky garbage and putting it on your head,” Chacour said.

His father’s determination to live out the Beatitudes made even more sense when Chacour learned Aramaic. He discovered that what Jesus said is translated in Greek as makarios and in English as a passive “blessed are.” But the gist of the original Aramaic is “get up, move, do something.” Chacour said, “I hear Jesus saying, ‘Get your hands dirty for peace. Build a human society for human beings. Otherwise, others will torture and murder the poor, the voiceless, and the powerless.’”

Since Chacour’s childhood, the Christian population in Israel and oPt has shrunk to two percent. Sometimes known as “the forgotten faithful,” Christians in the Middle East provide an enduring witness. They have the potential to help reconcile Christian West and Muslim Arab worlds. Chacour asked for Christians everywhere to pray “that Christians will stay and maintain a physical Christian presence in Palestine so that people maintain hope.”

Peace is hard work

Seeing each person as God’s image bearer and working for peace requires reconciling with people who make your life difficult. Though Arabs account for a fifth of Israeli citizens, they have fewer rights than Jewish Israelis have. “We lost our homes, possessions, lands, and power. But we still have our minds. Educating our children in peace and justice is our best hope for reconciliation,’” Chacour said.

Practicing peace is even harder in oPt, where poverty, checkpoints, roadblocks, trade blockades, and utility shutoffs dominate. As of February 2010, officials from the United Nations oPt office reported 550 closures in the West Bank (slides 14-15). Many Palestinians are never allowed to leave their village. Jericho is surrounded by a ditch and has only one entrance and exit. The military evicts Palestinians and bulldozes their homes so Jewish settlers can move in or build. The settlers get water 24/7. Many roads are for Jewish pedestrians and drivers only.

“When the Berlin Wall crumbled, we were dancing. We never realized there would be a wall that zigzags between our homes and farms, more than 525 kilometers long and eight meters high. This suffering must end before there is total moral corruption among Jews in Israel and Palestinians,” Chacour said.

Violence tempts the oppressed to retaliate with suicide attacks, which lead to more deaths.  Violence also corrupts the occupiers, say Israeli peace activists, refusers, and veterans who break the silence.

After a year of prayer and discussion, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders wrote the Kairos Palestine document. It asks the world, especially churches, to work with them for a just peace that includes peace and security for Israel. It calls Israel’s military occupation “a sin against God and humanity” and asks churches to “revisit” Christian Zionism, a theology that supports unfettered military aid to Israel so Christ will return and the end times will begin.

“I will always protest every evil act done against me or my people, but I will never protest with the same methods they use,” Chacour wrote in We Belong to the Land. Israeli authorities often refuse to grant building permits at Mar Elias Educational Institutions, the kindergarten through university system Chacour founded for children of all faiths. He solicits international support and builds anyway. He has replanted countless uprooted orchards.

Building bridges

Chacour asked churches to pray for solidarity among two peoples and three faiths in the complex challenge of sharing one land. “God always takes the side of liberation, not the side of particular people or nations as favorites. God calls the oppressor to be liberated from fear, anger, and lust for power. Remember that standing with the oppressed does not automatically make the other side your enemy,” he said.

He has often shown The Diary of Anne Frank film so students understand the Jewish Holocaust. In Faith Beyond Despair: Building Hope in the Holy Land, he wrote about rabbis who helped get food into the West Bank and Mar Elias students and teachers who gave blood for Israeli soldiers after a suicide attack.

For decades he has preached, “God is love. God does not kill.” Many Palestinians now work for peace through nonviolent resistance. Arabs and Israelis work together for peace, as do Jews in Israel and the U.S. and Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Holy Land and elsewhere.

U.S. Christians who pray for greater trust in Christ’s work of destroying the wall of hostility must also confess that their taxes prevent true peace and justice in the Holy Land. The Congressional Research Service reports that the U.S. gives an annual average of three billion dollars in military aid to Israel.

“We need common friends, people who are friends with both Jews and Palestinians. When the Israeli minister comes to visit me, I say, ‘Please tell your people that we don’t hate you. We don’t like what you have done to us. But we love you. We still have hope for you. I don’t ask you to destroy the wall. But maybe we can cover the wall with bridges,’” Chacour said.

Learn More

Listen to or download Elias Chacour’s January Series lecture “Unity within Diversity: Myth or Reality?” at Calvin College in January 2010. Read his books.

Plan an education event with resources, fact sheets, and recommended films from Jewish Voices for Peace and Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian group. Most U.S. newspapers fail to cover nonviolent resistance in Palestine, but you can see it on YouTube videos.

Stand with “the forgotten faithful.” Request a free copy of the video The Cradle of Our Faith. Read English professor Raouf J. Halaby’s brief lament that North Americans often equate Palestinian with terrorist. He writes, “My family was Christian before America was discovered.” Go deeper by reading Christians in the Middle East by Betty Jane Bailey and J. Martin Bailey.

Gather a group to read and discuss the Kairos Palestine document. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu prays that the Palestine Kairos document will mobilize international Christian pressure, just as churches did with apartheid in South Africa.

Christian traditions that have only recently confessed anti-Semitism may worry that speaking against Israeli occupation repeats past sins. However, some Israelis say that if U.S. military aid decreased, then Israeli politicians will have an alibi to appeal to reconciliation instead of to fear. That annual $3 billion chunk to Israel could instead be used to buy back homes and property from Israeli settlements or pay for primary health care and affordable housing in your community.

Use or adapt this service of prayer for people in the Middle East or this one by Anne Zaki. Listen to Anne Zaki sing “The Lord’s Prayer” in Arabic. Read denominational statements and use denominational resources on peace in the Middle East.

Pax Christi, an international Catholic movement for peace, has Peace Sunday worship resources. Use peace-themed prayers and Bible passages. Sing “A Song of Lamentation,” “For the Healing of the Nations,” or “God of Grace, God of Glory,” which includes the line “Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control.”

Observe the annual World Week for Peace in Palestine & Israel with these contemporary and traditional liturgies and resources.” Pray the Jerusalem prayer with Christians around the world. Read prayer requests and Easter greetings from Palestine.

Start a Middle Eastern cooking and conversation group based on cookbooks with stories, such as Palestinian and Jewish Recipes for Peace or Classic Palestinian Cookery.

Travel to Palestine and Israel. Serve as an ecumenical accompanier. Boycott or disinvest in companies that support Israel’s military occupation. Start a Hope Equals chapter on your school campus.

Browse related stories on Jesus through Middle Eastern eyes and Christians who suffer in Argentina, Northern Ireland, and Pakistan.  

Start a Discussion

  • What in this story surprises you? What do you disagree with and why?
  • If reading about Israel and Palestine makes you angry or fearful, what Bible passage, song or prayer helps you? How might these emotions help you pray differently for people in the Holy Land?
  • Which international needs does your church most often pray about? Which issues do you ignore—and why?
  • If you joined an organization or visited Palestine and Israel, will you share how that experience helped you pray differently? What worked best in sharing the learning with your congregation?
  • What worship resources—biblical, written, musical, visual, social, or other—help sustain you in working for peace, justice, and reconciliation?