Elias Chacour, a Melkite Catholic priest from Galilee, was named today as the winner of the 18th Niwano Peace Prize.
The prize, which includes a certificate, a medal, and 20 million yen (almost $200,000), will be presented to 61-year-old Father Chacour on May 10 at a ceremony in Tokyo. The awarding of the prize to a Palestinian who preaches peace seems intended by the Niwano Foundation to send a message to all parties to the violence in Jerusalem and beyond.
The foundation was lavish in its praise for the priest, expressing "its great esteem for his dedication to preach through the means of education". The foundation was referring to the educational institutions Chacour has set up where young Jews, Muslims, and Christians are taught together.
Chacour, who in 1994 won the World Methodist Peace Award, is known for his robust defense of peace and justice in the Holy Land. He is a highly articulate preacher who is welcomed warmly by Christians around the world. He has also written extensively, and his book Blood Brothers has been translated into 28 languages.
In 1996, addressing 2,700 people at the World Methodist Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Chacour said that the Holy Land was being emptied of its own Christians and those that remained in the region were powerless and voiceless. He criticized Christian tourists who visited the Holy Land, but did not meet the indigenous Christians there. "Living stones are more important than holy shrines," he declared. "Travelers visit the sand and stones, but don't want to share the faith with their brothers and sisters."
He also pointed out that God did not belong to Christians alone nor to any other single community. "God is not a tribal God," he said. "Not being tribal, God can no more be the God of Israel or [of] the church or even [of] Christianity," he said. "We do not have a monopoly over God or the Holy Spirit."
In a statement released today explaining the selection of Elias Chacour for the prize, the Niwano Foundation said that he had "dedicated himself totally over the last 30-plus years to efforts for reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians in Israel".
"In particular, Mar Elias Educational Institutions, which Father Chacour established, have been serving as a site for developing mutual understanding between youth of different religions and ethnic backgrounds?. He is a person who is able to shine a guiding light on the difficult problem of Israel's relations with the Palestinians."
The statement pointed out that Chacour experienced persecution when, at the age of eight in the 1940s he saw his parents being evicted from their village, Biram, in Upper Galilee, following the arrival of Jewish immigrants, who then hired Chacour's parents to pick figs and olives on what used to be their own land.
"People who have experienced persecution can become embittered and often resign themselves to a course of violent revenge," the Niwano Foundation stated. "But that was not the path that Chacour chose. The Jews themselves had been the victims of terrible persecution by Nazi Germany. Instead of meeting violence with violence, he chose the course of action to break the cycle of violence, suspicion and brutal hatred."
The Niwano Peace Prize honors individuals and organization that have contributed significantly to inter-religious cooperation, thereby furthering the cause of world peace. About 1,000 individuals and organizations from the world's major faiths in 125 countries were asked to propose candidates for this year's award, which was judged by a seven-member committee including representatives of Buddhist, Christian and Muslim faiths.
Previous recipients of the award include ecumenist Dr Philip Potter, the World Muslim Congress and the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland which brings together Protestants and Roman Catholics.
The Niwano Peace Foundation has an endowment of 3.8 billion yen which funds the award as well as research, lectures and international exchange programs.
The foundation was established by Nikkyo Niwano, who died in 1999 at the age of 92. Niwano began his working life as a street salesman and milkman, but eventually became a prominent advocate of peace, understanding and interfaith dialogue.
In 1938, Niwano founded Rissho Kosei-Kai, a Buddhist lay organization promoting inter-religious cooperation, social justice, world peace, and individual perfection according to Buddha's law.
The organization initially had 30 members and was based in a two-room office over Niwano's dairy operation. It is now a worldwide network of schools, community hospitals, and other activities with more than five million members, making it the world's biggest Buddhist lay organization.
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