At a time when many Christians worry about the future of fellow believers in the Holy Land, the first Arab elected as president of the Lutheran World Federation has highlighted their situation, and urged them not to emigrate - writes Peter Kenny.
Preaching the day after his election as LWF president, Jerusalem Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan called on those present to, "pray that Palestinian Christians may not lose faith and leave the country".
In an interview with ENInews, Younan had earlier said, "We ask Arab Christians not to emigrate. What is the Holy Land without Christians?"
The LWF's highest governing body, its assembly, elected Younan at its 20-27 July meeting in Stuttgart, southern Germany. He took office at the end of the assembly.
"We as Christians and especially as Lutherans have a role to play in the Middle East in reconciliation and interfaith dialogue," said Younan, who heads the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
"I sometimes ponder the fact that there have been Christians in Palestine since the first Pentecost," he said, recalling that Jesus had walked in the Holy Land. "Now, we Palestinian Christians are less than 1.5 per cent of the population."
Younan said, "According to recent studies by Bethlehem University and the Diyar Consortium, Palestinian Christians are leaving … for three reasons: the difficulties caused by the political conflict, a lack of jobs, and growing political and religious extremism."
"Even so," he added, "Palestinian Christianity has survived 2000 years. We have never ruled the country, nor were we ever in the majority. We do not have much property, power, money or influence. Yet, we have survived."
The 59-year-old bishop was the only candidate for the presidency of the LWF, a Geneva-based body that groups 70 million Protestants worldwide.
"In spite of circumstances, we Palestinian Christians try to be brokers of justice, instruments of peace, ministers of reconciliation, defenders of human rights, including women's rights, and apostles of love," Younan said in his sermon.
Younan told assembly delegates before they elected him that he was introduced to the LWF as a refugee, when he drank chocolate milk at the Martin Luther School in Jerusalem, and this inspired him to enter the Christian ministry.
"My parents were refugees. Our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, which grew out of the German mission work in the 19th century, embraced our family and helped us to stand on our own feet," he explained.
With 3,000 members, Younan's church is one of the smallest of the 145 in the LWF.
He replaces Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who served a seven-year period as president of the LWF.
"It is essential that I as an Arab Christian can be used by other Christians for dialogue with people of other faiths so that we can have dialogue that can be for the benefit of all people. We carry that expertise," Younan told ENInews after his election.
"We have to work to eliminate Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-Semitism so that the Church can be a beacon of hope in hopeless situations," he said.
Younan was ordained in 1976 after studying theology in Finland. He also studied at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He speaks Finnish as well as Arabic and English.
He is a founding member of the emerging Council for Religious Institutions in the Holy Land and has initiated a number of informal, dialogue groups, serving as forums for joint reflection between local Christians and Jews, as well as initiating discussion among the three monotheistic religions in the Palestinian territories - Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]