From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Lutherans Minister in Complex Middle East Situation

From News News <NEWS@ELCA.ORG>
Date Fri, 28 Dec 2001 12:53:57 -0600


December 28, 2001


     JERUSALEM (ELCA) -- Two-thousand members of a Lutheran church --
vastly outnumbered by Jews and Muslims -- are among the many people of
faith who live and work in the Middle East.  Thanks to significant
longtime financial support from Lutherans in Europe, members of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (and Palestine) (ELCJ) continue to
proclaim the gospel amid the continuing and shifting tensions of a
complex political, religious and social situation.
     In recent years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
has worked to build its connections with the ELCJ.  Recently, eight ELCA
members, including bishops and synod staff traveled to the Middle East
to learn from members of ELCJ congregations as well as staff and
students in ELCJ schools, and to hear from other leaders in the region.
     The ELCA delegation visited the Middle East Nov. 23-28.  During
the visit President Bush's envoy to the Middle East, Anthony Zinni,
arrived to begin discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Suicide bombings and shootings directed at Israeli citizens by
Palestinian extremists, followed by Israeli military responses erupted
days after the ELCA group left, threatening hopes for lasting peace in
the region.
     For Middle East residents life can be difficult and is filled with
complexities.  Christians, Jews and Muslims live in close proximity, and
the area in and around Jerusalem is filled with holy sites important to
each faith group.
     Palestinians have no independent country they can call their own
-- a key issue for them.  In 1948 the United Nations established the
State of Israel, displacing Palestine's people.  In 1967 Israel expanded
its borders.  Today Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza,
areas where most Palestinians live today.   Palestinians say they will
accept 22 percent of the land that was once theirs for a possible future
     A 2001 Advent message signed by several Christian missionaries and
church workers in the region says the Palestinian people have endured a
great deal under Israeli occupation.  Israel has confiscated their land,
shelled residential areas and refugee camps, bulldozed agricultural
lands, demolished houses, assassinated political leaders and activists,
expanded settlements, tortured political detainees and killed children,
the message said.
     Since the current tensions between Israelis and Palestinians began
in September 2000, about 800 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli
military and police; an estimated 40,000 have been injured.
     Israel has been plagued for years by attacks carried out by people
sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.  Suicide bombings, that generate
considerable news coverage worldwide, have killed and injured Israeli
civilians.  In the latest round of attacks, the Israeli government
blamed Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, for not
stopping the attacks and acted militarily against him and the
Palestinian leadership.
     An international process   with considerable help from the United
States -- has been interrupted many times by a spiral of attacks and
responses between Palestinians and Israelis throughout Israel and the
occupied territories.
     Many say a key to peace in the Middle East is a peaceful
Jerusalem.  The city is a typical large modern city with a significant
international population.  In the middle is the "Old City," a walled
city built centuries ago, lined with narrow streets, shops and homes.
Israelis suggest Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel, where
freedom of worship should be preserved.
Palestinians suggest East Jerusalem should be their capital.
     Palestinians who do not live or work in Jerusalem, however, may
not presently travel there without permission.  It is one of the
realities of living in an area occupied by Israel since 1967.
     "Jerusalem is the mother of all churches," said the Rev. Munib A.
Younan, ELCJ bishop, Jerusalem. "If the peace of Jerusalem will be
implemented, then peace will be in the world."
     Younan, who has served as bishop for four years, is a Palestinian.
He defends his people against oppression, yet advocates for peace for
all people in the Middle East.  He is a well-known, well-respected
religious leader who is in regular dialogue with government and
religious leaders for Palestinians and Israelis.  Younan's message is
always about justice, peace and reconciliation, realities he believes
are inevitable.
     "We are catalysts of a just peace, we are defenders of human
rights, initiators of a dialogue and ministers of reconciliation for the
people," Younan said. "We are hoping that just peace will come."
     Participants in the Middle East trip were the Rev. Said R.
Ailabouni, program director for Europe, Middle East and Horn of Africa,
ELCA Division for Global Mission, Chicago; the Rev. Hans R. Arnesen,
associate to the bishop, ELCA New England Synod, Worcester, Mass.;
Catherine I.H. Braasch, executive director, Women of the ELCA, Chicago;
the Rev. Duane C. Danielson, bishop of the ELCA Western North Dakota
Synod, Bismarck, N.D., and his wife, Jeannie Danielson; and the Rev.
Robert A. Rimbo, bishop of the ELCA Southeast Michigan Synod, Detroit.
     The group was accompanied by John R. Brooks, director for news and
media production, ELCA Department for Communication, and the Rev. David
L. Miller, editor for The Lutheran, the magazine of the ELCA.  Both are
from Chicago.

     In a session with Jewish representatives who advocate for peace in
the Middle East, the ELCA delegation was told that there must be
recognition and respect for all people in the region, from within and
outside of Israel and Palestine.
     People in the region are presently in a state of "great depression"
compared to optimism in the past, and there has been a significant
"breakdown of trust," said Rabbi David Rosen, international
director of interreligious relations, The American Jewish Committee,
Jerusalem.  Israelis and Palestinians are caught in a "syndrome of
victimhood," he said.
     "Quite honestly, the work we do at the moment is work against the
tide," Rosen said. Americans and Europeans must be involved to help
settle differences in the Middle East, he said.
     To have a long-term impact on the Middle East, Rosen suggested
there are two key issues: truth and peace.  "Peace and truth are not
always the same thing," Rosen said, adding that peace may require
     Rosen also advised churches in the United States, which advocate
for peace in the Middle East, to be careful with the statements they
     "If a church in the United States wishes to be successful, it must
use language that resonates with both sides," he said.
     There is a need for balance and empathy on both sides of the
conflict, said Rabbi Ron Kronish, director, Interreligious Coordinating
Council, Jerusalem.  He said he sees his role to be supporting the
political process by bringing religious and spiritual resources to the
table.  He also believes a Palestinian state will be a reality.
     "A two-state solution is coming about sooner or later.  How do we
get in front of that?" he asked the ELCA delegation.
     Younan, who meets regularly with Muslims, Jews and Christians,
agreed that a two-state solution is key to peace.
     "We are dialoguing, we are on the right track," he said.  "All you
have to do is pray we continue."

     The ELCJ consists of six congregations: Evangelical Lutheran
Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem; Evangelical Lutheran Christmas
Church, Bethlehem; Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation, Beit
Jala; Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope, Ramallah; Evangelical
Lutheran Church, Beit Sahour; and Evangelical Lutheran Church of the
Good Shepherd, Amman, Jordan.
     Many of the congregations were started in the 19th century by
European missionaries, and today each congregation has unique programs.
They include scouting, Meals-on-Wheels, camping, an international
outreach center, a boarding home for boys, a facility for interfaith
encounter groups, women's committees and ecumenical outreach efforts.
Education is central to their missions; most have schools that serve
Christian and Muslim Palestinian children.
     At Christmas Lutheran Church, the congregation is renovating and
building an outreach center to be part of its International Center of
Bethlehem.  The building project is expected to be complete in May 2002,
said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor.  The center is part of the
congregation's philosophy to minister to people beyond Bethlehem. "We
have a role to play on behalf of the whole Lutheran church worldwide,"
he told the ELCA delegation.
     Lutherans in the United States can make a difference in the area
by engaging in Middle East peace advocacy efforts, educating American
congregations about what is happening in the Middle East and relating to
churches and Christians in the West Bank, Raheb said.  Supporting
projects and taking authentic tours of the Holy Land -- visiting Israel
and the West Bank -- are other ways for Americans to be involved, he
      Hotels in East Jerusalem have remained empty or have been closed
for most of the past year because of tensions in the region, said the
Rev. Ibrahim Azar, pastor of the ELCJ's Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Jerusalem.  Danish-, English- and German-speaking congregations worship
at Redeemer. The lack of tourists, plus road closures by Israeli
military, have impacted members significantly, he said.  It would help
if more Americans would visit East Jerusalem to see what life is like,
Azar said.  "Many people are afraid to go to the east side of Jerusalem
because of the situation," he said.
      Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation, Beit Jala, has
some 520 members, said the Rev. Jadallah Shihadeh, pastor.  A key
ministry is a boarding school that houses 47 boys ranging in age from 4
to 17 years.  "We can't imagine the church without these children," he
told the ELCA group.
     In August 2001, Israeli Defense Forces entered Beit Jala, occupied
the church property and were said to have been shooting from the
church's rooftop at rock-throwing civilians.  The occupation of the
church property by military forces drew condemnations from Lutherans
throughout the world.  Israeli military forces withdrew one day later.
     Younan and other Lutherans, including two ELCA missionaries -- the
Rev. Michael Thomas and the Rev. Susan Thomas, who serve the English-
speaking congregation at Redeemer Lutheran Church -- went to the church
during the military occupation to deliver food to the children.  None of
the children was reported injured during the occupation.
      About 400 people are members at Evangelical Lutheran Church of
Hope, Ramallah, said the Rev. Ramez Ansara.   The Lutheran Church in
Finland supports a Meals-on-Wheels program, which provides two meals a
week to elderly people in the community.  The congregation is also part
of an ecumenical council of Ramallah congregations, he said.
     Of the ELCA groups' visit, Ansara said, "A true friend is a friend
who will come and help his friend in need."  Though the congregation
hopes to have a better life, he reminded the group the Palestinians
"don't have any kind of (military or political) power."
     "We have the power of God.  We pray," Ansara said.

     The ELCJ operates grade schools and high schools for Christians
and Muslims.  The educational work of the Lutheran church in the area,
which dates back as far as 150 years, is important to the life of the
ELCJ, said Viola Raheb, director for schools.
     "The moment we decide to close our schools is the moment we close
our parishes," she said.
     A significant element for the schools is that Muslims and
Christians are being educated together and learn to relate to each
other, Raheb said.  The schools are also coeducational and serve
children without regard to social or economic status, she said.
     A newer part of the educational system is vocational education,
she said.  "Palestine is in need of people with professions," Raheb
said.  "We are trying to change attitudes regarding professions."  The
schools also provide extracurricular activities such as music and the
arts, information technology and physical education, she said.
     Families pay up to 40 percent of the actual cost of education,
which averages about $500-$700 per student annually, Raheb said.  The
rest is subsidized by financial support provided by other churches and
organizations.  Because of the current conflict, which began nearly 18
months ago, 90 percent of the families in Bethlehem cannot afford to pay
their share of the tuition because the parents are out of work, Raheb
said.  School and church leaders have decided they will not send
students away because their families can't pay.   In addition, the
situation has left the schools challenged to pay salaries for staff, she
     Most schools offer crisis intervention and counseling for the
students, to help them cope with the realities of war, hunger, fear and
related illnesses, Raheb said.
     "It is important for our educational work to do that," she said.
"If we are not concentrating on that, we can forget education."
     Specific needs in ELCJ schools include teachers who can teach fine
arts, such as music.   Christian education teachers are also needed, she
     Another need is for U.S. colleges and universities to help
Palestinian students and teachers acquire specific educational skills,
so they may return to the Middle East and help the Palestinian people,
Raheb said.
     "We have been living here for the past 2,000 years, trying to keep
the message of incarnation and resurrection alive in this country,"
Raheb said in an interview.  "I think it's important for people in the
(United) States to hear something about our dreams, our visions, our
fears and our joys."
     The ELCA delegation visited three schools:
     + Evangelical Lutheran School, Beit Sahour: The 100-year-old
school serves 500 Palestinian students.  Eighty percent are Christian,
the remainder Muslim.  "Our intention is to teach them to coexist, live
together in peace and harmony," said Hani Odeh, headmaster.  Most of
Beit Sahour's 12,000 residents are Christians.
     + Dar al-Kalima Model School, Bethlehem: This 150-year-old school
is housed in a new building.  The school is designed to serve as many as
400 students when it is fully completed.  The ELCA provided a $150,000
gift to help meet the costs of the new school building.
     + Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope, Ramallah: The school was
established in 1966, and provides a variety of services and programs for
students.  It serves as many as 550 students, with 38 staff.  About 60
percent of the students are Muslim.
     During the ELCA delegation's visit to the Ramallah school,
students challenged the ELCA delegation in a dialogue about perceptions
of Palestinians.  Many of the students voiced the concern that many
Americans, influenced by media reports, believe that most Palestinians
are terrorists.
     "We are aware of your frustrations and your pain and this tragedy
that you are living," Ailabouni said to the class.  "That's why we
wanted to come at this time to show our support for you.  We want you to
know that there are a great number of people working to change the
situation.  We are impatient with the fact that it's taken so long.  We
hope you don't lose hope."
     "You're not terrorists, and you're not someone to be scared of,"
he continued.  "You are to be loved and cared for."
     ELCA delegation members also said they will serve as advocates for
the Palestinian people with ELCA members and with governmental
     "We will be advocates for you," Rimbo said.  "We will tell the
truth of what we have seen to our friends, our congregations and our
church.  And we will be advocates with our government for you as well."
     "We are vitally concerned about young men and young women working
together," Braasch said.  "This (trip) put a face on what we can only
see in our minds sometimes."
     "I feel inspired by all of your people and the Lutheran schools,"
said Jeannie Danielson.  "I had a stereotype of what Lutheran schools
are because I know what they are in America.  But here, the schools have
just been excellent in terms of what I see happening: innovative classes
and programs for the whole person."
     In a classroom with younger children, Duane Danielson said the
purpose of the trip was for the ELCA group to learn and "to try to
initiate change through our government" and to encourage church members
to support the Palestinian people.
     "We want you to know a lot of people care very much," he said.
"We want you to think there are other people of hope that don't want you
to give up hope."
     A few days after the ELCA delegation's visit the school was closed
because of Israeli shelling, a response to the suicide bombings in
Jerusalem and bus bombings in Haifa that left 25 Israelis dead.

     The ELCA delegation met with ELCA missionaries serving in the
Middle East.  Peter and Kathleen Kapenga have served in the region some
25 years; the Rev. Michael and the Rev. Susan Thomas have served there
three years, and are pastors of the English-speaking congregation at
Redeemer Lutheran Church, Jerusalem.  All expressed  strong sentiments
about remaining to serve the Palestinian people in spite of heightened
tensions and violence.
     "I can't think of walking out on people who have suffered so
long," said Kathleen Kapenga, who volunteers at a fair trade shop at a
church in Jerusalem. "They are incredibly patient, forgiving people.
They have been gracious to us as Americans.  I can't see how I could
     The focus of their ministry is to provide a "solidarity and
presence with Palestinians," said Peter Kapenga.  "What I have done is
not important.  What has been done is we've stood shoulder-to-shoulder
with the Palestinian people.  That's important."
     Jerusalem is like a roller-coaster, both spiritually and emotionally,
said Michael Thomas.  He said he gets his inspiration by talking with
people in the church, particularly in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
"It never fails to be a message of hope for being here," he said.
     "The Palestinians are a very impressive people, and it is a
privilege to be a pastor to them," said Susan Thomas.

     During the ELCA visit, the delegation met with the Rev. H. B.
Michel Sabbah, Roman Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem.  Sabbah, a
Palestinian, was critical of the Israeli government, in particular of
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, for its role in the region's troubles.
     "If we have peace, we can thank the Israelis," he said during the
meeting.  "If we have no peace, it's because of them as well."
     Should peace in the region be achieved, Palestinians will "forget
and forgive" and will be peaceful neighbors with the Israelis, he said.
The Israelis are not ready to forget and forgive, Sabbah charged.  "The
key is in their hands," he said.
     The ELCA delegation concluded its brief visit to the Middle East
with a dinner.  Guests included religious and political leaders from
-- -- --
     A video news story on the ELCA delegation's Middle East visit can
be found at on the Web.

For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG

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