* The Bishop’s Visit to Iran
By Bishop Munib A. Younan
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and Palestine
* The Bishop’s Visit to Iran
* School Anniversaries in Beit Sahour and Talitha Kumi
* The COCOP Meeting
* Swedish Theological Institute Anniversary
* Present Political Situation
The Bishop’s Visit to Iran
As a member of the Executive Committee of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) I had the opportunity to visit Iran early this month. This was the first official visit by the MECC to Iran, and even the first Christian meeting there since 1979. Besides the meeting of the Executive Committee there was also time to make pastoral visits to the local churches. We were indeed very well received. Our hosts stressed time and again the encouragement and joy they felt being visited by Arab Christians representing other local churches in the region. We were very happy to meet with representatives and ordinary members of the Armenian-Orthodox, Evangelical, Anglican and Roman-Catholic churches living in Iran. I must admit, that in Iran, I discovered my role as an Arab Palestinian Christian, that is so much needed for the witness of the Church in the Middle East. This role is a call for us to be the carriers of the torch of resurrection.
Among the many important events taking place during the visit was a Christian-Muslim Interfaith dialogue organized by Ayatollah Taschiri, the Director of the Department of Culture. This influential connection gave a link to the governing circles in Iran and an exposure to the first official dialogue of this kind. I was even asked to present a paper in which I called religion to assume its role for building just peace and reconciliation. The event was televised nation-wide and was the first program of this kind in Iran.
In the program the Iranian Moslem representative stressed three basic conditions for real Interfaith dialogue. First, that the aim of religion is to glorify God and not ourselves. Second, that the participators in dialogue should be religious people rather than non-religious. Third, that there is a need to reevaluate the religions, and differentiate between their real image and the perverted forms that have arisen due to various historical events. As examples, Taschiri mentioned Zionism as a perversion of Judaism, the Crusades as a perversion of Christianity, and the Afghan Taliban’s destruction of Budda’s statutes as a perversion of Islam.
The MECC visit to Iran was very successful, and served as a source of inspiration and strength to the witness of the Christian minority there, counting some 600,000 out of Iran’s total population of 65 million.
Celebrations of School Anniversaries in Beit Sahour and Talitha Kumi
Although we are living in a political crisis, where the shooting and shelling is frequently heard and felt, our people have not stopped from rejoicing. We rejoiced in the 100th anniversary of Beit Sahour Lutheran School and thanked God for the Christian witness this school has been giving during all the years. Many people in our community – young as well as old – came out to support and rejoice in the celebrations, and to have joy in life. In the Thanksgiving Service on Sunday, May 6th in the church in Beit Sahour we were however sadly reminded of the ongoing crises, as we could hear the sound of heavy shelling in the distance, hitting private houses in nearby Beit Jala.
At Talitha Kumi School, we were joined by many guests from abroad, who came to support the 150th year celebration. Over the years the school has sustained many difficulties. We are grateful to God that the school has been able to continue its work, despite the fact that the original property of TK in West Jerusalem had been confiscated in 1948, and despite the fact that it is situated now in an area where severe fighting has been taking place time and again during the last eight months of Intifada. Our son Andrea also graduated this year from Talitha Kumi. Like all Palestinian parents we worry a lot about the future possibilities for our children. He wants to study computer science, but there are concerns what kind of opportunities there will be for him and his classmates.
In this time of crisis we are very much disturbed to learn that more and more families (both Christian and Muslim) are seriously considering emigration as the only option to find security and a future for their children and youth. In the past we have experienced difficult times and have seen the percentage of Christians in the population decreasing to around 2%, but in all this I have never been so seriously afraid for the future of the Christian presence in the Holy Land as I am now.
In my speech at the Talitha Kumi graduation I tried to address this matter. Although the thoughts of emigrating are understandable in a time when many people no longer have an income, I pointed out the importance of people staying on with a will of contributing in ways suitable for them to the development of our civil modern society and our country. At this point in time patience is needed more than ever before. But will our people be able to be patient? In the present difficulties we need to support one another and together keep hope alive, just as has happened many times during the last century of schoolwork.
During this scholastic year we have been very determined to keep our schools operating as normal as possible regardless of the situation. Thanks to our devoted staff we have been able to continue the education of the children in the midst of serious difficulties. The future of the schools is a great concern for us. The impact of the crisis on the Palestinian economy will be much more felt during this year. A large number of parents are not able to pay tuition fees, as they do not have income. How will we be able to keep the schools open in this situation?
The COCOP Meeting
The Coordination Committee of Overseas Partners (COCOP) had their annual meeting in Beit Jala this year. The choice of venue is a reflection of the present situation. Had the meeting been held in Jerusalem many of our own people would not have been able to attend. The days before and after the meeting there was extensive shelling of Beit Jala. However, during the three days of meeting the town was quiet. The meeting proved very successful. Among the most important items on the agenda was the restructuring of the old COCOP into a new organization allowing for the mutual cooperation between ELCJ and her partners. There was full agreement on the principles for this new form of cooperation, which will be functioning next year. Then the bishop of the ELCJ will be chairing the meeting together with the Rev. Dr. Said Ailabouni, ELCA, who was elected co-chairperson for the coming two years. The name COCOP will be retained, but is now to be spelled out as “The Coordination Committee for Co-operation between the ELCJ and her Partners”. We are very grateful for the good work done by OKR Hannes Gaenssbauer of VELKD, as chairperson of the old COCOP. He had asked not to be considered as co-chair in the new COCOP. We are, however, very glad to have him with us also next year as a representative of VELKD in COCOP.
We are very pleased to be able to move into a new structure for our cooperation with our partners, where our mutual interdependency is clearly reflected. The relationships with COCOP as well as with our other partners are essential for the life and witness of the ELCJ, as they have an impact on various levels of our church. Through these long-term relations mutual love and stewardship is being implanted in the hearts of leaders and grassroots both here and overseas. We are very thankful for our partners. Being partners is a privilege – but also a challenge for God’s mission in our respective countries. It is a challenge for a common martyria.
Swedish Theological Institute (STI) Anniversary
As the STI celebrated its 50th anniversary in Jerusalem, I was honored to speak about “Religion and Politics in the Holy Land”. I called on the three monotheistic religions to be prophetic and work to wake up the conscience of the world that is sleeping. Religion can never accept injustice or occupation. The three religions should stand up for truth and justice, then they can prepare the way of reconciliation. But, does religion dare to speak against the trends? Does religion dare say: Stop the spiral of violence, the hatred, the extremism and the fear? Does religion dare to demand justice and implement it? Does religion dare to say that only the freedom of the Palestinians will bring the security of the Israelis? Does religion dare to say that Israelis and Palestinians need to share the country equally, equitably and in justice?
Present Political Situation
Since my last newsletter the situation has deteriorated further. The excessive use of force has paralyzed the economic life of the Palestinians, and created frustration, fear, trauma, hatred, and an urge for revenge among the vast majority of the population. The recent Israeli use of F16 fighter jets to bomb targets in densely populated areas like Nablus, Ramallah, and Gaza is a serious escalation of the conflict. There is no way that such action can be justified as retaliation for the terrible suicide bombing in the shopping center in Netanya. The effect of such acts-as the continued shelling of Gaza and Beit Jala and other places by tanks and helicopters-is a growing sense of revenge and retaliation in our society. Thus the most extremist views are being nurtured on both sides of the divide between the two people, which most likely will make the spiral of violence grow even further.
In this situation there were hopes that the release of the long awaited Mitchell Report would give a glimmer of hope. I think the points made by the Mitchell Commission on the whole are good and balanced. But as long as its recommendations are being accepted until now, only by the Palestinians, there is little chance that the report will have any direct impact on the present crisis. What is needed now is strong action from the U.S., Europe and the international community to exert pressure on both parties to implement the Mitchell recommendations as a basis for a new effort to stop the acute violence and move towards a resumption of talks to achieve a just and lasting peace.
As we realistically foresee that the peace we are looking for still remains in the distance, we request that ecumenical observers be sent to stay with us to witness the suffering and injustice, to support us in our yearning to secure a just peace. We ask you, our partners, to stand by us and to be part of our ministry. We belong to you as you belong to us. Our mission is yours, as your mission is ours. We are carrying the death and resurrection of the Lord in our bodies. For this reason we are not afraid; and nobody and nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Please do not cease to pray that our Savior may continue to give us courage, power, and perseverance and wisdom to be His living witness in the troubles Holy Land.
May God bless you all.
Bishop Munib A. Younan
The Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem