January 13, 2009
Bishops learn about Bethlehem ministryWith the vision "that we might have life and have it abundantly," a Lutheran congregation in Bethlehem has embarked on a ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, aimed at empowering the people who live in this conflicted area.
Mitri Raheb, pastor, Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church presented his congregation's vision to 44 North American Lutheran bishops who met there Jan. 10.
The bishops, representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, are participating in a weeklong series of meetings with religious, political and community leaders in Israel and the West Bank, and visiting sacred sites. Their visit, concluding Jan. 13, also focuses on support and encouragement for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land .
Christmas Lutheran Church formed DIYAR (meaning "homeland"), a consortium of Lutheran-based ecumenically oriented institutions serving the whole Palestinian community, Raheb said. DIYAR now has a staff of 100 people. He said the 200-member congregation is reaching out through DIYAR to about 60,000 people each year by means of its International Center of Bethlehem, a conference and media center, plus a health and wellness center. In 2006 the congregation started Dar al-Kalima College, the only Lutheran higher education institution in the Middle East, Raheb said.
Raheb said he and others needed to gain consensus in the congregation before moving ahead with DIYAR. Some members wanted to wait until times were better for Palestinians in the West Bank, who live under Israeli occupation.
"I told them: 'Stop waiting! The Messiah has already come!" Raheb said.
DIYAR focuses its programs on peacemaking, care for the city, investing in spirituality, empowering individuals and the community, building bridges for intercultural dialogue, creating room for hope, and the "mysteries of the risen Lord," Raheb said.
In a question and answer session with the bishops, Raheb said that he is concerned about the future for Palestinians, especially because of the current conflict between Israel and Gaza.
"I think we are heading with full power to a fully developed apartheid system. This war on Gaza had many goals, but one important goal is to make the two-state solution not viable. A two-state solution made sense, but what is happening in Gaza makes this impossible," he said. Raheb said he's also concerned about the future safety and security of people living in the West Bank because of the war in Gaza.
In a separate presentation of how the ELCJHL and the North American Lutheran churches can work together, Munib A. Younan thanked the bishops for traveling to the region. "Your presence here is not a lip service. It's a statement. It's a statement that you stand with the local people, not in times of joy but in times of difficulties, in times of occupation and in times of war," the ELCJHL bishop said.
Together with the ELCJHL, the North American Lutheran churches are "on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus will break the bread and tell us 'you are my children, and I ask you to continue to accompany each other for witnessing for the Lord,'" Younan said.
More: The Lutheran's editor Daniel J. Lehmann is accompanying the bishops. Follow his blog ...