January 9, 2009
North American Lutheran bishops visit Israeli officialsBishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada met Jan. 8 with Israeli government and religious officials as part of a pilgrimage to the Middle East. The bishops also toured the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and laid a wreath.
Forty-five bishops representing both churches are participating in a series of meetings Jan. 6-13 with religious, political and community leaders in Israel and the West Bank. The visit, focused on supporting the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, is the North American Lutheran bishops' annual academy for theological reflection and study.
The Lutheran bishops met with the two chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Yona Metzger and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who spoke about the current fighting in Gaza.
For nearly eight years Israelis living near Gaza have been subject to periodic rocket attacks on their homes, launched by Hamas from Gaza, Metzger said. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, but it has the right to self-defense if Israeli lives are threatened, he said.
"When you return to your countries, please be ambassadors to our feelings," Metzger said to the Lutheran bishops. "We don't want war. We don't want to kill innocent people. We want only to defend ourselves."
Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, told the rabbis that the bishops opposed the escalating violence. "I hope you hear — it didn't sound like you have -- our rejection of any violence perpetrated upon the people of Israel — the violence of suicide bombers, Hamas rockets, or rockets from the north today," Hanson said.
The rabbis feel "deep distress" for the loss of innocent lives in the Gaza conflict, Amar said. To help explain the large number of civilian casualties, the rabbis said authorities showed them maps and photos of where they believe rockets have been fired from Gaza. Earlier in the day, a rocket launched from Lebanon into Israel was determined to be an isolated incident.
As of Jan. 9 nearly 800 Palestinians have been killed in the recent conflict in Gaza, according to news reports. Governments, churches and relief organizations have expressed concern for the high number of civilian casualties and an escalating humanitarian crisis for residents of Gaza lacking food, water and basic necessities. Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world, with 1.5 million people living on a strip of land 28 miles long.
Hanson said Lutherans and Jews have strengthened the foundation given to them from shared spiritual history and sacred texts during the past 25 years. He referred to the actions of the ELCA and ELCIC in the 1990s repudiating Martin Luther's anti-Jewish writings. Lutherans and Jews are work together in the Middle East in the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, he said. In the United States they join together in the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative.
He told the rabbis that "as a Christian leader, on the basis of the Christian tradition of just war-unjust war principles, it is impossible for me to see that the response of Israel to the Hamas rockets meets the ethical test of proportionality or concern for noncombatants."
Hanson said it was his prayer that Lutherans and Jews could have honest conversations. "If we can't have honest conversations, who is going to win this encounter with religious extremists and fanatics who thrive on violence begetting violence?" Hanson asked the rabbis.
Susan C. Johnson, ELCIC national bishop, told the rabbis, "I must confess to you that we struggle with this (Gaza conflict), but I want to say to you that we are committed to staying at the table. The cracks that Bishop Hanson has alluded to — about how our relationship may be strained at this time because of our struggle to understand all perspectives — are there, and we need to acknowledge them. But our commitment is to stay at the table with you."
The bishops also met Bahij Mansour, director, Department for Religious Affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A small group from both churches held private meetings with Israel's Minister of the Interior, Meir Sheetrit, in Tel Aviv, and Minister of Tourism, Ruhama Avraham, in Jerusalem. Meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni earlier in the day were canceled, following the rocket attack on Israel.