Saturday, 22 March 2014

Ibellin and Israel March 2014

The church of Elias Chacour
The steps leading up to the
church with the Beatitudes
 in several languages
I travelled to Israel on March 2nd 2014 primarily to visit Ibillin in the hope of a personal interview with Abuna Elias Chacour who was the  Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church from 2006 to just before I arrived. He had only just retired. St John's Church has been supporting his work since Rev. Graham Trasler took groups on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 1980s and 90s. Elias Chacour has written several books recounting his childhood in Bir'em, a Palestinian Christian village in the North of what is now Israel. 

In 1948 the villagers were forced to leave their homes and the village except for the church and graveyard, were destroyed by Israeli forces. Much later he became a priest and was sent to Ibellin, where he found Palestinians who were cut off even from books and education. 

The Ash Wednesday Ashing ceremony 
performed by Bernhard, the German priest
Inside the church
Elias set about creating schools and a college and opened it up to Muslims, Christians and Jews, because as the title of an early book of his states, they are all 'Blood Brothers'. His work and journey have not been easy and he has been a frequent attendee of Israeli courts as planning requests were inevitably turned down. 

Even the people I sat with on my flight over gave a taste of the divisions in this land. Next to me was an Israeli avidly reading a huge tome on the background and cults of Islam, and on the aisle seat, was a very tired looking Roman Catholic priest. On the way back it was journalists who occupied the two seats next to me.

 So my journey in Israel began with a rather low powered car that struggled with hills and a useless Sat Nav from Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv. The Sat Nav did not recognise the name Ibellin and nor did most of the people I asked for help on the way. A late night drive on the other side of the road, with all controls in opposite positions to what I was used to was pretty awful, but getting very lost indeed without a clue as to where I was, was so bad that I resorted to approaching an Israeli police car at some road works. One of the many God moments on my travels. The policeman drove me in convoy to Ibellin with lights flashing and saved the day! A few days later that same police officer, off duty, stopped me in Nazareth to make sure I was OK!

An English lesson for 14 year olds
The Mar Elias guest-house is situated above the secondary school. Ibellin is an amazing place; much larger than I expected, with steep hills that were challenging for all cars and almost impossible for mine. I never once found my way around Ibellin without getting lost. The campus has several schools, gym, church and other assorted buildings on it. The rest of the town has several churches and mosques where the Christian and Muslim community live side by side speaking Arabic. Parts of it are very like Bethlehem.

Michael (Mica) Chacour
Although Elias Chacour was away for most of the time I was there, I was fortunate to have coffee with Michael Chacour, his nephew, early on in Abuna's home. He is quite a character and very different indeed to his uncle. In one photo you can see a bullet hole in the front door. Michael told me that they don't always feel safe and later on Abuna himself showed my how the bullet had hit metal and had therefore stopped it from doing any real damage.

Elias Chacour's front door
Staying at the guest house at the  same time, was a German Roman Catholic group lead by a Priest who had been in his parish for 25 years,  but was shortly to retire. This was his last Parish visit to the  area. I was very fortunate that they offered to take  me out with  them and I accepted their offer on a couple of days.

Church of the 12 Apostles
  On one of my days there I drove   to the Sea of Galilee. It was a     beautiful day and very calm. My   favourite place was a church I  have never been to before on the water's edge. It is Greek Orthodox and called the Church of the Twelve Apostles. The murals are stunning and I almost had it to myself as it seems to be off the usual tourist route. It was in a small national park, which was also beautiful. My Sat Nav refused to recognise either Arab towns, except for very large ones like Nazareth, or any Christian sites, which meant that I had to find a nearby Jewish settlement or site and get as close as possible to where I wanted to go! I ended up going wrong a great deal! Thankfully I had a really good map with me from a previous visit. 

Inside the church of the 12 Apostles.
Sea of Galilee

The following day I visited Nazareth. Nazareth is very much like old Jerusalem in places and I felt very at home. I first visited the Greek Orthodox church where they were having an Ash Wednesday service. It is a beautiful church so I was glad to be able to listen and even to see the murals and the spring in an older part that feeds the well that Mary is reputed to have used.

Greek Orthodox Church Nazareth 
Inside the Basilica
I was also fortunate that the main Basilica in the town square below had lovely organ music playing. Chiefly, I was delighted to have a long conversation with the warden of the Anglican church and recorded some of it. He told me about the situation for local Christians and his hopes and fears. 

Church warden of Anglican Church 
Anglican Church Nazareth
Before coming back to Ibellin I managed to find, despite my Sat Nav and car, the church at Cana, of wedding fame, though I am told now that there are 2 contenders for the title.

Mica looking out over Safed
The next day I was very pleased to visit Safad and Bir'em as well as Rosh Hanikra on the border with Lebanon with the German group. Mica came with us and so I was very glad that the commentary was in English and not German, although it was efficiently translated for the others. Mica sadly found Safed very difficult as, what was once a thriving mixed community is now Jewish only with many old Palestinian buildings either left empty and derelict or taken over by Jewish families. An old Mosque is now an art gallery while another has been built over. It was still a beautiful town, but now it has a terrible history. 

Mica at the door of Bir'em Church

Inside Bir'em Church
Bir'em is the village where Elias Chacour lived as a child. It was a surprise in many ways because the cemetery and the church are still complete and in good condition and although all the houses are ruins, there is more to them than I had expected. The old villagers still return to bury their dead in the cemetery and now a couple of them stay in the village to protect what is left and to keep it alive as much as possible, but the area has been turned into a National Park and Israel refuses to allow them to return in a meaningful way. That is no doubt partly because of the ancient remains of 2 synagogues from Roman times that lie right next to the village. The village had existed there for 150 years in proximity to these ancient ruins, but now the Israeli tourist guides only refer to the Synagogues. Nothing else matters. After we had finished there and had lunch we arrived at the coast right on the border with Lebanon. You can see the actual border in the photo. It is a beautiful shoreline with interesting caves, but we arrived too late to visit them.
The remains of Bir'em

The Lebanese Border
I joined the German group again the next day for a visit to the Golan Heights, and the Tel Dan and Banias Nature Reserves. It was a day full of mixed motions and incredible blessings. Much too much to share here, but we visited, nature reserves, archaeological sites dating back to Canaanite times, waterfalls, Paneas, otherwise know as Caesaria Philipi, both the Lebanese and Syrian borders, eaten the most amazing picnic cooked by our coach driver, attended a celebration at Ibillin with a lot of singing and cake with Micah Chacour and friends and finally met Elias Chacour who would give us a talk the next day and agreed to meet me as well!  We did rather more walking than intended as we got a bit lost in at the Banias nature reserve after already having completed the 2 1/2 hour trail at the Tel Dan reserves in 1 1/2 hours, but on a beautiful day, it was wonderful exercise!.

The Caananite Gate

Israeli leaflet
I am interested to know of the views of others on this information found in the Israeli tourist leaflet for Tel Dan Nature Reserve? Usually killing is either instructed by God or is because the Jews were either afraid or fighting for their lives. But here it seems to clearly state that the Philistines were 'a people tranquil and unsuspecting', and they slaughtered them just because they did not get on with them! It seems to be a surprisingly honest statement. 

We then travelled further into the Golan heights very close to the border with Syria. It was a strange place to be and felt very quiet and 'peaceful' - very eerie.

A Syrian town in the distance

Picnic at Caesaria Philipi

After a morning talk by Elias Chacour, I finally had a private meeting with him on the afternoon of Saturday 8th March.  I have two recorded messages  from him. One is about Islam and  the relationship between Islam  and Christianity in the Holy Land, which I include here. the second  is a personal message to St John's which I will share when I do a presentation on June 3rd.

I arrived safely in Jerusalem despite the Sat Nav and it was a relief to hand the car back. Having had a glorious week it began to rain and steadily got colder. Little did I know what was in store!

Elias Chacour gives his views on Islam
 in  the Holy Land
Entertainment, food, company and fun
at the Ibellin Guesthouse
On my first day in Jerusalem I went to visit a member of Combatants For Peace in West Jerusalem. It is an Israeli human rights organisation for Israelis and Palestinians who have put down their arms and want to take the road of non violence towards a just peace. I am honoured to be helping to set up the UK part of this organisation, but that is another story.

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