Dr Pia de Simony, organiser of the meeting and author with Marie Czernin of a biography of Monsignor Chacour: Elias Chacour - Israeli, Palästinenser, Christ. Wien, Herder, 2007 (Elias Chacour - Israeli, Palestinian, Christ. Vienna: Herder, 2007).
When I became a priest in 1965 I initially thought I would devote myself only to the Christian community to which I belong. Soon however I realised that if I really wanted to take care of the well-being of the Christian minority I also had to do something in order to develop good relations with the Muslim community; otherwise we might end up living in a fake world, far from reality. I also realised that our future and happiness, our rights, could only be achieved if we built bridges between our Arab community and our Jewish neighbours, who are the majority in Israel. From then on I started to consider the Jewish community as my community. The same love that I had for my fellow Christians I started to have for my Jewish friends. And I also decided to tell them the truth, even when it could hurt sometimes.
I told myself that raising a new generation was the only guarantee for a better future. The Arab community in Israel is very young. About 75 per cent of our people are under the age of 28; 15 per cent are under 14. Our future thus will depend on what kind of education we can give to this youth. In my vision Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze children are invited to sit in the same classroom, study and dream together, write their future together, right now, today. And this is no utopia.
In addition to other projects in 1982 I founded a small school in I'billin, a village in the Galilee [between Nazareth and Haifa]. Until then the village had no high school and only 90 children attended primary school, including five to eight girls. Yet we could never get a building permit. Two weeks after I applied for one we got an answer: "Application rejected! No permit shall be issued to you." I told myself then: "What do I need if I want to have a school? A building permit or a building?" A building obviously. So I decided to build one without a permit.
Three months after construction had begun the police showed up. "Where is the permit?" "I don't have it." "How can you build without a permit?" "Actually Sir, I never build with a permit; I build with sand, concrete, steel, stones, water, etc." You can imagine how the policeman reacted: He was mad and uptight, but not as much as I was.
They eventually dragged me before the court37 times since then and always over building permits. Now though I think the Israelis have become more reasonable. I doubt very much they would deny me a building permit at present.
And so nine months after we started putting up the small school, I rang the bell and found myself staring into the eyes of 82 children, 13- and 14-year-olds, ready to make the still unfinished building into a school.
Today, 25 years later, our school has about 4,500 students, boys and girls. Muslims for the most part and great kids. Some of the female students wear a headscarf like our nuns. I tell myself why shouldn't we consider them beautiful when that is how we see our own nuns? Other girls do not cover their heads. Still other Muslim girls are a bit harebrained, superficial exactly like some of our Christian girls. Do you want to know why? Because Muslim boys and girls are also created in the image and resemblance of God, that is to say they are free to choose whether to believe or not, choose what is good, what is less good, and sometimes even pick what is not at all good.
Since we opened our doors some Jewish children have begun attending our school. What seemed impossible at the beginning has now become a reality. It was not easy to convince them to come but in the end they started coming.
Our teaching staff is now 290-strong, made up of highly qualified educators, a third of whom are PhDs, and 32 of them are Jewish men and women, who do not lecture in special subjects like electronics. Like any of the others they teach physical education, math or fine arts. And I hire them, and if they don't do a good work I fire them.
Over the same period we have not only built a high school for about 1,500 students but also a kindergarten for 350 children and an elementary school for 700 pupils. We also have a vocational school and five years ago I had the privilege of opening the first ever Israeli Arab-Christian University.
At the end of the celebrations I left the 126 students present and went back to my office, where I found myself kneeling, happily immersed in prayer. "Lord, you can let your servant go in peace now," I thought. But he did not answer me; instead I got the impression that he was telling me: "Kid, you delivered this baby, and now you want me to take care of it! I don't need you up here. Stay where you are and take care of this child!" Since then all of us have never stopped taking care of this child.
We are convinced that the shortest distance to peace involves many young Jews, Christians and Muslims living a lot together from the age of four to eight in the same school, with each other. Our greatest enemy is mutual ignorance. The second greatest enemy is to take the easy way outblame the Jews because they are like this or that or blame the Palestinians because they are like this or thatthus ignoring how things really are.