He stood at the lectern, a small, intense man, and he chose his opening words carefully, to demand the instant attention of his listeners.
"I am tempted to begin, 'My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?' " said the black-bearded priest. "The cross of Jesus Christ has been a kind of curse on us. Since He was crucified . . . it seems our Via Dolorosa has not come to an end."
The Rev. Elias Chacour, a Roman Catholic priest of the Melkite Byzantine order, a native Palestinian whose home is now in Galilee, was trying to explain the problems of Arab Christians in Israel today.
"From the beginning we have been the mother church of all the churches all over the world," he continued. "As the mother church, we have been told to give, and to give up."
Chacour's thesis, which he expounded to a highly sympathetic conference on Biblical Foundations for Justice in the Holy Land, was that Palestinians displaced from the land that is now Israel were paying for the "blood guilt" Western Christians felt over the Nazi holocaust and the centuries of anti-Semitism that led up to it.
It was a theme that was returned to frequently during the three-day conference at Catholic University that dealt with the Middle East crisis from the Arab perspective. The meeting was sponsored by a diverse group of evangelical Christian, civil rights and American-Arab organizations.
The conference, which continues through today, is part of a continuing tug-of-war for the sympathies and support of American Christians on one of the most emotionally explosive issues today--the conflicting claims of Palestinians and Israelis for territory and security.
D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy told a prayer breakfast of the conference yesterday that he and other black civil rights leaders went to the Middle East three years ago to try to persuade leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel to "make a moratorium on violence and come to the peace table . . . with no conditions."
In remarks liberally salted with Scripture references and reminiscences of past civil rights marches, he continued, "Our appeal, of course, fell on deaf ears, but we hold onto our faith that people of God will overcome, in our generation."
One of the aims of the conference was to counteract the teachings of some right-wing evangelicals that the return of the Jewish people to Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy about Christ's imminent return, a viewpoint frequently articulated by some TV preachers and evangelists.
In a paper to be delivered at today's session, activist evangelical author Wesley Granberg-Michaelson denounced this interpretation as a "form of racism" in which Arabs, including Christian Arabs, "are seen as the enemies of God . . . not as people but as mere pawns in a divine chess game of human history . . . ."
Under such an interpretation, he said, "There is no basis for justice to the Palestinians since God in this theology has willed the establishment of Israel . . . . Any grounds for justice toward Arabs is subordinated to God's plan for Israel, and thereby dismissed."
In an exegesis of biblical concepts of God's promises, theologian Rosemary Reuther of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., differed with fundamentalist views of Israel. She said that God's promise in the Old Testament to give the land of Israel to the Israelites was contingent on their keeping the commandments and "was part of the struggle to build a just society . . . ."
"The gift of the land was not a right," she said, "it was not a property deed."
Reuther pointed out that the book of Leviticus warns that if the Israelites give up their children to the false God, Molech, "the land will vomit you out of it as an abomination.""
Seeking to apply that understanding to today's situation in the Middle East, Reuther pondered whether today, Israel, through "endless warfare" might not be "sacrificing one's children to Moloch that was proscribed in Leviticus . . . .
"The return to the land can't be separated from the struggle for justice," she said.
Reuther pointed out that Christianity for centuries has distorted scripture by the most blatant acts of anti-Semitism and persecution and has defended such actions "as divine punishment of the Jews for rejecting Jesus."
In his remarks, Chacour made the distinction that such persecutions, including the "satanic Nazi regime," were committed solely by Western Christianity. "The Orthodox Christians never persecuted the Jews, the Orthodox Christians always wanted to live in peace and love with the Jews, the Moslems, and even the Western Christians," he said.
Assailing the stereotype of all Palestinians as terrorists, Chacour said, "I am not a terrorist." Grasping the edges of his jacket he flung it open and said "I have no bombs. I have never had bombs. Because my village was destroyed by bombs I have a hatred for violence."
The priest continued: "The Jews in Israel are there to remain. They are welcome with us. But without us they are not welcome, and if they want to drive out the Palestinians they will have to continue to purchase more and more sophisticated weapons. With weapons they will not purchase my heart . . . . The price of security in the Middle East is my heart."