Palestinian Priest Wins Award for Peace Efforts

Founder of Interfaith Schools Wins Niwano Prize

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TOKYO, FEB. 19, 2001 (ZENIT.orgFIDES).- Father Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Melkite Catholic priest involved in education for Palestinian and Jewish children, has been awarded the Buddhist Niwano Prize for 2001.

The prize, about $173,000, will be presented to him May 10 during a solemn ceremony here. The award is given annually to individuals or institutions for outstanding activity in the field of peace, reconciliation, interreligious dialogue, nonviolence and human rights.

The Niwano Foundation was established in 1978 by Nikkyo Niwano, a Japanese Buddhist, who devoted his life to the cause of world peace, and was a pioneer in interreligious dialogue. The Niwano Foundation supports grants, research, lectures, symposiums and international exchanges.

Father Chacour was chosen from some 1,000 candidates proposed by intellectuals and organizations representing 125 countries and several religions.

When he received the news, the Palestinian priest said: «I am both delighted and honored. I accept this prestigious prize with gratitude and consider it a sign of encouragement. The Niwano Peace Foundation is a sign of hope for humanity.»

For more than 30 years, Father Chacour, 61, has been dedicated to efforts for reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

He is the founder of Mar Elias Educational Institutions, which today have a combined enrollment of 4,000 students. These centers are seen as oases where young people, whether Christians, Jews or Muslims, can study and work with one another to build a common future. The institutions provide a meeting ground for practical training toward peaceful coexistence based on religious pluralism and dialogue.

«International agreements are only signatures on pieces of paper. Through our education, we want to reach agreement in the hearts if the younger generation, the leaders of tomorrow,» Father Chacour explained.

He was born in 1939 in Biram, a village in Upper Galilee, in Arab Palestine, to a Palestinian Christian family, members of the Melkite Catholic Church. At age 8, Elias and his family were evicted by Jewish immigrants and become refugees in their own homeland.

Instead of growing up with a grudge, Elias understood the suffering of the Jews, who were victims of Nazi persecution. With Jewish friends he tried to break the cycle of suspicion and hatred, and work for reconciliation between the two peoples.

Elias was ordained a priest in Nazareth in 1965 and in 1982 he opened a Prophet Elias School in Ibillin in Lower Galilee. This was the beginning of Mar Elias Educational Institutions, which today include schools of all grades, as well as a Technical College, a Regional Teachers Center, and a Center for Religious Pluralism.

Father Chacour´s 1998 book «Blood Brothers» has been translated into 28 languages. His 1992 «We Belong to the Land,» on the power of faith, was translated into 11 languages.

Previous winners of the Niwano Award include Protestant pastor Kang Won Yong, South Korea (2000); the Sant´Egidio Community, Italy (1999); and Corrymeela Community, Northern Ireland (1997).

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