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January 8, 2009

Lutherans worship at Jesus' baptism site, leaders meet king

About 60 people, including about 10 bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, worshipped at the site of Jesus' baptism on the banks of the Jordan River on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6.

Joining the bishops were members of Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church, Amman, Jordan a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.

Epiphany is a Christian commemoration of the visit by the three wise men or magi to the infant Jesus.

King Abdullah II of Jordan gave land at the site to the ELCJHL, which plans to build a chapel and retreat center, said Munib A. Younan, ELCJHL bishop.

Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop and president of the Lutheran World Federation, said the baptismal site "will be a site of renewal of our Christian faith and our baptismal vocation to establish peace with justice first here in the Holy Land." He said the site reminds Christians to be peacemakers, especially while the conflict in Gaza continues.

Worshipping at the historic site on Epiphany is a reminder "of the gifts of forgiveness and salvation we receive through our Baptisms," said Susan C. Johnson, ELCIC national bishop. "We thank our Lord and Savior for the gift of peace that we are asked to share, especially during time of conflict in Gaza. May this site and the remembrance of our Lord's Baptism continue to help strengthen us to be peacemakers in our world."

In remarks to media before the service, Younan thanked the king for the gift.

"We are a church that wants to serve justice," Younan said. "We want all violence in Gaza to end. We want the occupation to end. We want to live in peace and justice in a two-state solution." Jerusalem should be a shared city for all people, he said.

Hanson, Johnson and Younan also shared a 20-minute private audience in Amman with King Abdullah II. They discussed the future of Jerusalem as a shared city with universal access to Holy sites; the king's commitment to the continued presence of Arab Christians in the Middle East; improved relationships between Christians and Muslims; and the urgent need to end the conflict in Gaza and respond to the humanitarian crisis, Hanson said.

The king suggested continuing the conversation when he visits the United States in February to meet the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, the ELCA presiding bishop added.

The North American Lutheran bishops, spouses and staff left Jordan and traveled into Israel to Jerusalem, where they joined several other bishops from both churches.

Forty-five bishops are in Israel Jan. 6-13 for their annual academy, a time for theological study and reflection. The bishops have planned a series of meetings with religious, political and community leaders in Israel and the West Bank. Some ELCA bishops canceled plans to join the academy because of the fighting in Gaza.

In opening remarks Jan. 6, Dean Nelson, bishop, Southwest California Synod, Glendale, said the bishops' visit has three purposes: to support and encourage the ELCJHL, to learn what living in the region is like for Israelis and Palestinians, and to advocate for peace for all people. Later the same evening, some bishops, spouses and staff attended an Orthodox Christmas celebration in Bethlehem.

The North American Lutheran bishops' visit has gained greater visibility because of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, compounded by rapidly declining living conditions for local residents. Since the fighting began right after Christmas, nearly 600 people have died, many of whom are Palestinian civilians.

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