American Lutheran bishops travel to the Middle East

By Agencies
January 6, 2009

Despite the continued conflict in Gaza, bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) are proceeding with plans to travel to the Middle East today.

Both churches have a long interest and concern in the region. The current military and humanitarian crisis in Gaza provides an added context and incentive for the trip.

A smaller group of seven ELCA bishops, including the ELCA presiding bishop and the national bishop of the ELCIC, spouses and staff arrived for a series of meetings on 3-5 January with religious, community and political leaders.

The Lutheran leaders are going to provide support for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), to learn more about the realities of living in the Middle East and to advocate for peace in Israel-Palestine.

Leading the bishops are the Rev Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, other leaders of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, and the Rev Susan C. Johnson, ELCIC national bishop. The Rev Munib A. Younan, bishop, ELCJHL, leads the host church.

“We come as leaders from the United States and Canada to publicly commit ourselves to pray for peace in the Middle East,” Hanson declared.

He said he fears people in the United States view the Middle East in its complexity, which prevents speaking clearly for an end to violence, for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, for a return to negotiations, for a reestablishment of human rights, and for an opening of borders so that medicine and basic necessities can get to the people of Gaza.

Hanson said his denomination will advocate for peace with political leaders and will pray for peace. He expressed appreciation for Jordan’s King Abdullah II for his efforts to stop the violence in Gaza, for sending humanitarian relief to people in Gaza, and for the king’s respect for deeper relationships between Muslims and Christians.

The North American bishops are here as part of their 2009 Academy, an annual time for theological reflection and study. Though planned for months, the visit is especially timely given the current conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Israel’s decision to send ground forces into Gaza has heightened concerns throughout the region.

Throughout the weekend, ELCA bishops and staff monitored the situation in Israel and Gaza. They met by conference call to discuss concerns with bishops and staff in the United States. Options included reducing the size of the bishops’ delegation because of security concerns. Leaders determined that the visit should proceed as planned, with as many bishops from both churches participating as possible.

Following their itinerary, the bishops plan to travel to Jerusalem. They will be joined by about 29 more bishops from the ELCA and four more bishops of the ELCIC. That group will meet with religious, community and political leaders in Israel and the West Bank through to 13 January 2009.

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