CHICAGO (ELCA) – Representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, both based here, met Feb. 29 to discuss one another’s understanding of the “Arab Spring” developments, especially concerns for minority religious groups in the Middle East, and the official Israeli-government position regarding the situation in Syria.
The request for the meeting came from Bahij Mansour, who directs the inter-religious affairs division of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Mansour is the former Israeli ambassador to Angola and will soon become ambassador to Nigeria.
“The urgency of this meeting is that we believe that the government of Israel should give formal recognition to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and Holy Land,” the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, said in an interview.
He said the recognition would be “a tangible sign of Israel’s concern for and commitment to religious minorities, because Christians are a numerical minority among Palestinian people.”
The ELCA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land have a long-standing relationship with Mansour. Both denominations are members of The Lutheran World Federation, a global communion representing more than 70 million Christians worldwide.
Conversations during the meeting “built on a relationship that we have established over the years with Ambassador Mansour and the consulate general, which enable us to work on complex issues in the spirit of honesty and commitment,” said Hanson.
“I felt it was very important today to hold the government of Israel to the promise made to the Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and to me when I served as president of The Lutheran World Federation. That recognition has not happened and is of deep concern,” said Hanson.
Mansour responded that he was supportive of the request for recognition, but that complex relationships within the present coalition government of Israel were delaying the request.
Hanson also cited that the Israeli government has yet to grant necessary permits to support the Mount of Olives Housing Project — an effort to build affordable homes on Lutheran World Federation-owned property on the Mount of Olives. Homes would be leased to Palestinian families and individuals, many of them Christians, which would enable them to maintain their Jerusalem residency and keep the right to work, live and move freely within the city.
Hanson said the granting of the housing permits can “become a concrete sign that even seemingly small steps can contribute towards a movement for peace.”As ELCA leaders, Mansour and the consulate general discussed the situation in Syria, Hanson shared the text of his recent letter to Christian leaders in Syria and in the United States. In his letters Hanson offered his support of the churches’ collective call for an end to violence and his prayers for the people in the region.
The meeting included conversations about divestment, in which ELCA leaders were able to clearly state that recent ELCA churchwide assemblies have affirmed that this church does not intend to move toward divestment.”We (also) affirmed that we listen very closely to our Palestinian Christian companions and take seriously the voice from their context,”said the Rev. Robert Smith in an interview. “At the same time, we said that we do understand the context surrounding the State of Israel, which is changing very rapidly in the Arab Spring. We understand that the State of Israel has concerns in this unpredictable time.” Smith oversees the ELCA’s work in the Middle East and North Africa and coordinates the Peace Not Walls campaign.
This week a delegation from the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which includes Younan, is meeting in Washington D.C., noted Smith. The delegation, made up of Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, “is a visible sign that religious leaders can be part of the solution to the conflict in the Holy Land, that religious differences are not inherently an obstacle to peace,” according to a written message from the council.”The ELCA supports those groups that work towards moderation and peaceful co-existence,” said Smith, adding that the meeting between ELCA leaders, the consulate general and Mansour was “good. We had strong exchange of perspectives, and we left with a commitment to continue our engagement.”
The ELCA’s engagement with Mansour includes a greeting with members of the ELCA Bishops’ Academy pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in 2009.
Mansour was also present during negotiations surrounding the State of Israel’s tax case against The Lutheran World Federation’s Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem.
About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with 4.2 million members in 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work.
Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.
For information contact:
Melissa Ramirez Cooper
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