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Mike Vere in Palestine PDF Printable Version E-mail

 

Ibillin: A Palestinian Village in Galilee

Mike Vere

December 2007

We first met Mike and Christine in Kirkenes in 2006, in the far northeast of Norway, near the Russian border. Their Hobby motorhome had carried them there from the UK via Albania and Greece and much else besides. We were travelling in our Four Winds motorhome, making an Autumnal circuit of Scandinavia.

After taking the coastal ferry to Bergen and another ferry to the Shetlands, the Veres returned home before Mike began the adventure described below.

If you would like to learn more, or make a contribution to the work in which Mike is involved, you can contact him at or telephone him in the UK: +44 (0)1548 855630.

Mike writes:

At present I am fulfilling one of my retirement ambitions - to work as a volunteer in a place that really needs help: a Palestinian village in Galilee called Ibillin.

I came out here in early October 2007. Since then I have been doing a mixture of building work (decorating, tiling and toiling) and teaching - four classes of children each Friday in the 'Gifted School'. The subject matter: archaeology - hobby of mine (What? Old jokes, do we hear?). I guess the bottom line is English but I have been trying to teach them something about the origins of the Philistines (their ancestors). I will find out how much they've taken on board when we do the end of term quiz (with prizes!) on 14th Dec. I have to say, the kids (and their families) are delightful - a few even bring me sweets. I can see the attractions of the profession now.

I also came to meet for myself the man responsible for MEEI (Mar Elias Educational Institute): the thrice-nominated Nobel Peace Prize candidate, Elias 'Abuna' Chacour. The attached 'flyer', circulated in Kingsbridge just before coming here, gives some flavour of the man.

I met him for a chat last Monday. He is now the Archbishop of the Melkite church, which comprises over 50% of the 150,000 strong, 6-denomination, Israeli Christian population. That may not sound much in our terms but it punches above weight in terms of influence and respect. On 6th November the Archbishopric hosted the entire senior hierarchy of the Austrian RC church. There was a mass in the church here attended by 15 Austrian Bishops and their Cardinal plus all the Melkite Bishops and the Lebanese Maronite Bishop (Abuna says 'we have forgiven the Maronites their collaboration with the Israelis').

The first graduation day of the Mar Elias University (MEU), the only Arab University in Israel, was held on 29th October. It was a great event with a star-studded cast of American University Presidents, Ambassadors, Politicians and, again, many Bishops. There will, sadly, not be one in a couple of years because the Israelis, having provided the normal Government University funding for the first year, withdrew it the year after. Then they refused to recognise the MEU. Can you imagine the effect on students and staff morale? The teachers here probably represent the crème of Arab intelligentsia in Israel. They have difficulty getting jobs elsewhere. There seems to be a knee-high glass ceiling for Arabs in many key areas such as hospitals.

It has survived largely through Abuna's absolute refusal to give up and the remarkable fund-raising efforts of a lady called Susan Drinan. He obtained affiliation with Indianapolis University, thereby issuing joint degrees, while Susan raised hundreds of thousands of dollars last year mainly through private 'pledge parties' in and around her Chicago suburb of Wheaton. However, the MEU is still hugely in debt and every little helps. I have promised Abuna I will do my best to spread the word.

For various complicated reasons, the Elijah Trust, a UK NGO mainly involved in helping MEEI, has not been involved in supporting the MEU financially. In the meantime I am doing all I can to drum up support myself. I do know they have reservations about the value of an 'Arab' university degree in Israel. However, at the ceremony I attended at least 60% of the graduates were women and we were told they nearly all had jobs to go to. My next-door neighbour, Myrna, is a first year (induction started again this year) Chemistry student in a class of 30, with only 6 boys! This is the norm but Myrna is the only student in residence. Arab families are very protective of their daughters.

One thing the Elijah Trust and I are in definite agreement on is the fact that, as their head says: 'I think that the Israeli government would like to be shot of its Arab minority and become even more exclusively Jewish.' This resonated for, as I was listening to the 'Welcome to School' music the other day and realising it was themes from films like 'Exodus' and 'Schindler's List', it dawned on me that lots of Jews, especially those in power, are not only still living in Nazi Germany (in their heads) but are carrying out here that policy with the Palestinians which the Nazis were planning on doing to the Poles - not just annexing the country but 'getting rid'. Of course it's in a 21st (?!) century style, but the Gaza strip, Jenin etc are like concentration camps: they are certainly ghettos.

Of course, there are many Jews, sadly a fairly non-vocal if large minority, who are pretty uneasy, unhappy even, with the Government line. Some have the greatest sense of foreboding. A prominent Israeli artist said to me: 'I see no long-term future for the State of Israel.' They are now the wrongdoers in many people's eyes. The Arabs are the wronged, who now have a chunk of world opinion on their side.

Meanwhile Israeli soldiers are everywhere, with loaded automatic rifles as well as pistols. One of them opened fire on a bus in the neighbouring town of Shefaram without any other reason than a 'hatred' of Arabs. Many were severely injured and four were killed, including two Muslim sisters. One was soon to have been married. They had been to town to buy wedding dress material.

This scenario echoes the one triggering the first Intifada. Indeed, the soldier was killed by a mob of 10,000 and his body put on the bus. The bus was soaked in petrol and would have been be torched, but a group of police officers managed to get on board. A police officer, uneasy with the way a police minister was handling the affair, called in Abuna. The official said to him 'We don't need you' but the police officer grabbed him and begged him to stay: 'This minister is only out to make a name for himself. He doesn't care about the people. If you go there will be bloodshed.' He stayed and there was no further trouble. The chilling and incredible details I will not go into here, other than to say that in the end Abuna's humanity, courage and tenacity saved the day.

The 'flyer' referred to in the text went something like this:

Abuna is the pet name of Elias Chacour - a very special Palestinian indeed. Along with thousands of others, his family were dispossessed by the Israeli Army in 1948. When he was 8 years old his village, Biram, was destroyed by tanks and the lands given to Jewish immigrants. However, his people were first century Melkite Christians. They lived in the lands where Christ walked and preached. Their response was in the true spirit of that teaching. He sympathised with the holocaust refugees and has consistently and continually attempted to reconcile the Palestinians with the Israelis through entirely peaceful means.

Elias became a priest. On 15th August 1965 he arrived at his first parish, Ibillin in Galilee, to find a despondent, diffident flock almost totally at odds with each other. Through audacious, often inspired, acts he turned them around. One incident where, on Palm Sunday, he locked them all up in their church until brothers, who had hated and ignored each other for decades, flung their arms around each other and wept, is worthy of an epic film. He says he was first called Abuna, meaning 'our father', on that day.

Ibillin has since progressed under his leadership to become, with the Mar Elias Educational Institute (MEEI), a model of ecumenical education: initially kindergarten and then infant, primary and secondary. Now there is the Mar Elias University (MEU) and under this enlightened umbrella, thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze have grown up and studied together.

Abuna* is now the Archbishop of Akka (Acre), Haifa, Nazareth and all of Galilee. He joins an illustrious band, including Joseph Raya who, through his friendship with Pope John 23rd, was instrumental in the introduction of the vernacular mass. His attempts at Christian, Jewish and Muslim reconciliation were a great inspiration to all.

I was in Ibillin as a volunteer worker and bearer of small-beer funds between October and Christmas 2007. A few people have offered financial assistance to MEEI/MEU through me and, of course, any further contributions would be more than appreciated. If you would like to help please contact me via: or telephone me in the UK: +44 (0)1548 855630.

* For further information see: 'Blood Brothers' and/or 'We Belong to the Land' by Elias Chacour.