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January 11, 2009

Lutheran bishops hear from families of Middle East conflict victims

One man mourns a daughter, the other grieves a father.

Their losses put them on an unlikely path to friendship in an area of the world marked by Palestinian-Israeli strife.

Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, and Mazen Faraj, a Palestinian, shared their stories recently with 45 bishops from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada visiting the Holy Land Jan. 6-13 to support Christians and promote peace.

As the two men spoke, the bloodshed in Gaza continued to escalate, adding to the toll of about 7,000 lives already snuffed out by violence since 2000.

The violence "will not stop until we talk," said Elhanan, who lives here. His 14-year-old daughter died in Jerusalem in 1997 in an attack by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Faraj, who lives in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, said an Israeli soldier fatally shot his 62-year-old father in 2002.

The losses drove Elhanan and Faraj to find constructive ways to understand and respond to the carnage. They are members of Parents Circle - Families Forum, an organization of bereaved families promoting peace and reconciliation for all who live in the region.

At least 500 Israeli and Palestinian families are members of Parents Circle. They engage in public speaking, raising awareness and advocating for peace. Members also travel at great personal risk to donate blood for victims on either side of the conflict.

Meetings with young students are eye-opening for the teens, Faraj said. "For the Israeli students in the Israeli high school, it's the first time in their lives (that) they meet with a Palestinian as a human being," he said, "because most of the time, they meet with a Palestinian in the media, through the government and through the newspaper."

Anger consumed Elhanan for months after his daughter's death. At the suggestion of a friend, he attended a Parents Circle meeting, mostly out of curiosity, he said. Many people attending arrived in buses.

"I saw the Palestinian bereaved families coming towards me from the buses, shaking my hand for peace, hugging me, crying with me," he said. "I was completely shocked."

At the time, he was 47 years old.

"It was the first time ever in my life that I met Palestinians as human beings, who suffer exactly the same as I do, who carry exactly the same burden that I do," Elhanan said.

His life changed forever.

With his family's support, Elhanan now devotes his time to talking with anyone who will listen. His message is simple.

"We are not doomed," he said. "This is not our destiny to keep on killing and dying in this Holy Land of ours forever. We can change it. We can break once and for all this endless cycle of violence, revenge, retaliation and punishment."

Elhanan added that he is "ashamed as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a human being" of the current Israeli military operation in Gaza.

"The free and civilized world is standing by and doing nothing," he said. "This is a shame. It must be stopped because too many kids are being slaughtered."

Faraj agreed that the human impact of the violence had been lost.

"No one cares about it," he said. "All the politicians care about is the politics, the authority, the power, the money, the corruption, everything — but they never talk about the human side of this conflict."

Faraj said his friends also support his work with Parents Circle. Still, he lives with fear. Because he lives in Bethlehem, he needed special permission from the Israeli soldiers to meet with the bishops in Jerusalem. The journey frightened him.

Elhanan praised his friend for his bravery.

Visit the ELCA Web site for Information about the 2009 Bishops' Academy.

More: The Lutheran's editor Daniel J. Lehmann is accompanying the delegation of North American bishops. Follow his blog > > >

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