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HAIFA-CHACOUR Apr-23-2009 (900 words) With photos. xxxi

Melkite archbishop worries his flock will be left out of papal Mass

Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour of Akko, Israel, is pictured in his office in Haifa. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

HAIFA, Israel (CNS) -- About three weeks before Pope Benedict XVI was due to arrive in Israel, Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour of Haifa was a bit testy.

While the Melkite faithful -- members of a Byzantine-rite church -- are likely to form a significant portion of the faithful at the papal Mass in Nazareth May 14, the Mass is unlikely to have any significant Byzantine flavor, he told Catholic News Service April 19 in his Haifa office.

After a planning meeting April 20, the archbishop said: "They have said we could have 27,000-28,000 tickets. They need the crowd, but we want to be visible, to represent our church while we are still here and alive.

"We are still on the margin of events" during the pope's May 8-15 visit to the Holy Land, he said, though adding that "things may still change."

In his office a few days earlier, he said Pope Benedict and Vatican officials in charge of planning the trip "have to be aware that he is the pope of the Catholic Church, not just of the Latin(-rite) church."

Statistics on the number of Christians in Israel and in the Palestinian territories are notoriously inaccurate because of emigration and people transferring within the region, but Archbishop Chacour estimates there are 70,000-76,000 Melkite Catholics, 40,000 Orthodox Christians, 10,500 Latin-rite Catholics and 8,500 Maronite Catholics in Israel. The Melkite and Maronite churches are among the 22 Eastern Catholic churches that originated in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa.

While Christians represent only 2 percent of the Israeli population, they represent 26 percent of the people emigrating each year, he said.

With its mixed population and mostly peaceful relations between communities, he said, "Haifa is one of the most beautiful cities -- inside and out. The relationships of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze are really like family relations."

In fact, the archbishop and Haifa city officials tried to convince the Vatican that Pope Benedict's main Mass in northern Israel should be celebrated in Haifa where the new Carmel Port facility could accommodate as many as 100,000 people.

In the end, Vatican planners chose Nazareth and its new hillside amphitheater, which was still under construction in late April.

"We feel a bit marginalized with this visit," Archbishop Chacour said. "The pope should visit Haifa and Nazareth and the Mass should be celebrated here. There was no place in Nazareth, but I'm very happy to see they made a major effort and there is a place now.

"I understand they prefer Nazareth because it is a holy place. I prefer Haifa because in Nazareth he will be in the shrines, in the antiquities; here he would be with the living people," he said.

Still, the archbishop hopes that the pope's visit and words will encourage the local Christians to stay in the Holy Land.

In order to be convinced to stay, local Christians "need only dignity and recognition, to be recognized and given the respect they deserve after suffering for 60 years (since Israeli statehood was declared) and being marginalized in their own country," the archbishop said.

"The emigration is catastrophic," he said.

"Christians here are considered a just-tolerated minority," he said. "They are looked at as being Palestinians and, like their Muslim brothers, they have lost everything: their land, their country, their power, their ability to make decisions.

"Not being wanted as a minority is an awful feeling" and, in the end, is what pushes many to leave, the archbishop said.

Still, Archbishop Chacour is "so proud to be the archbishop of this very vibrant church," which runs schools, a home for the aged, a home in Haifa for prisoners, provides food for the poor, conducts a special collection to help Muslims in the West Bank celebrate Ramadan, and has active parish-based groups for men, women and youths.

Before becoming archbishop in 2006, the Melkite leader was known for his energy, enthusiasm and success in opening and running schools, a key factor in keeping Christian families in the Holy Land, giving them hope for the future and promoting good relations among members of different religious communities.

"Three weeks ago we got the good news that the government of Israel and the higher education council approved the university for which we have been working for eight years," he said.

For the past six years, the university has been operating as the Mar Elias Campus of the University of Indianapolis and has seen 750 students graduate.

Government approval means that it can start operating as an independent, degree-granting university.

"What we hope is that this will be a factor to slow down the ongoing emigration, besides giving hope to the Christians that they can have higher education without going abroad," he said.

While the university -- like the grade schools and high schools the church runs -- was a Melkite project, very few of the students were Melkite Catholics, he said.

"The majority were Muslims, Druze and Jews. Ours are very 'catholic' schools, so catholic that we cannot stay alone. We want Muslims and Jews and Druze to be with us," he said.

From the youngest child just learning to read to the oldest finishing his or her degree in computer science, Archbishop Chacour said, "all have one thing in common -- they are born in the image and likeness of God and, for me, that is enough."


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