Pilgrims of Ibillin

The Pilgrims of Ibillin is an American organization that works to support the wonderful schools founded by Melkite priest Father Elias Chacour.

Through the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, Fr. Chacour is working to build peace in the Holy Land.

A Brief Report of Trip to Ibillin, Israel, by Don Griggs – December 2002

(Rev. Dr. Donald Griggs is a Director of the Board of the Pilgrims of Ibillin, a Presbyterian Pastor and educator in Livermore, California)

It was a wonderful experience to be with the people of Mar Elias Educational Institution in Ibillin. I was with friends in a very special, familiar place. They kept me busy from morning to night everyday. The students, faculty, and staff welcomed me in ways that made me feel like I was one with them in their community. If only I could have spoken a little Arabic I would have felt even better. Fortunately, everyone I spoke with at any length was able to communicate with me in English. By the time the students graduate from high school they are fluent in Hebrew and English, in addition to their native Arabic. I conducted more than 20 interviews with students, faculty, staff, graduates, and others. All of the conversations were recorded so that all I need now is the time to sort through them to select important quotes. I also shot about 800 photographs of which I hope 200 or more are keepers.

Some brief observations:

  • Everyone was genuinely appreciative of the contributions Pilgrims of Ibillin has made to Mar Elias. On the first day, Father Chacour introduced me to the whole student body of the high school at their morning assembly in the parking lot. I told them that I came to learn more of their story in order to share that story with people in America. I also told them I brought a check for $40,000 to help with the construction of the elementary school. During my time in Ibillin I spoke with many students, faculty, staff and graduates. Everyone said, “Tell the people in America, thank you for their prayers, for their concerns about us, and for the financial help you provide.”
  • Even though everything is going well in Ibillin, there is clearly an undercurrent of frustration and despair regarding the political situation in Israel. They feel deeply the pain of their brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. They object to being treated as second-class citizens in their own land. They observe that the U.S. government is too one-sided in our unconditional support of Israel and the present regime and that a grave mistake will be made if we attack Iraq. I taught in an introduction to Bible class that is the beginning of the university program with a certificate in theology. One of the students asked me, “How many Americans are like you?” His impression is that all Americans are supportive of the present policies of our government. He was heartened to hear that there are many Americans who disapprove of the actions and policies of our government, who care very much about the plight of the Arabs/Palestinians.
  • The development of the first Arab Christian University in Israel, under the auspices of Mar Elias, is proceeding according to plan. I met with members of the University Start-up Team, which includes two Jews, one from the Ministry of Education of Israel and the other an Urban Planner. They are very enthusiastic and committed to this project and look forward to the first classes being offered no later than next September. Ninety Ph.D. professors have submitted their vitae indicating their desire to be part of the founding of the university; thirty of them are Jews. I visited the site where the university will be built, in Mi’ilya (Maylya). Mi’ilya is a small Arab Christian village about an hour north of Ibillin. It is one of only two remaining Christian villages in all of Israel. The village council has given 50 acres of land for building the university and I was present at the signing of the documents by the Mayor and Father Chacour. The Mayor presented me with a certificate declaring that I am an honorary citizen of Mi’ilya. Every person I interviewed among faculty, staff, and graduates expressed great enthusiasm for the university. I have the impression that when the university becomes a reality Mar Elias will have a status and stature that far exceeds what they have now and the people will have a pride and also opportunities that are greater than they have presently.
  • Construction of the elementary school has begun. While I was on campus they began pouring concrete for the retaining walls that will help extend the site so there will be room for playing fields for the children. The 200 children of the elementary school now have their classes in the first floor of the college building, which serves the purpose temporarily but is not a good situation for either the children or the college students. Next fall, when the elementary school building is completed they will be able to accommodate more than 600 students. In addition, the top two floors of the building will have dormitory rooms to accommodate female students. It was good to see the progress of the elementary school, since it is one of the three projects Pilgrims of Ibillin is supporting in our Capital Fund Appeal.
  • The academic standards of Mar Elias Educational Institution remain high. Their students perform above average in the annual standardized exams to determine their eligibility for college and university admission. Last year one of the Mar Elias graduates achieved the highest score in the exam in all of Israel, a perfect 800 out of 800.
  • In addition to all of the above observations, I should report that I made a few side trips during my time in Ibillin. I visited holy sites in the Galilee that included a visit to Tel Dan where we walked to the source of the Jordan River. We visited Biram, the destroyed village of Father Chacour’s childhood. I visited a Melkite Church in Akko that is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its present building. A visit to Nazareth Village was another highlight. This is a reconstruction of a village to represent life in Nazareth at the time of Jesus. Sunday worship was in the Melkite Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Sheferam, an adjacent community to Ibillin. Father Chacour was the celebrant of the Eucharist. My visit to Mi’ilya included participating in the olive harvest, seeing olives pressed into oil, visiting a restored peasant’s home built in the late 1800s, and spending the night with an Arab Christian family.

I plan to return to Ibillin in 2003, if the way is clear. It will be important to build on the relationships that were established with key people on this visit. In addition, there are tasks to accomplish that were not completed on this trip. I will keep you posted.