Describing the past six months as "a disaster for Palestinians and indeed the whole Middle East," the leading Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem has urged US Christians to join their Middle East brothers and sisters and say they are "fed up" with stigmatization, bloodshed, hatred and occupation affecting both Israelis and Palestinians.
The Rev Munib A. Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), was speaking at the end of his visit to the United States from 18-31 January 2007.
In the course of his trip, Bishop Younan gave a series of lectures on the situation in the Middle East and the future of Palestinian Christianity. The Lutheran leader spoke in schools, congregations and meetings in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.
At the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago Younan reminded his audience that he is both a refugee and an "Arab Palestinian Evangelical Lutheran Christian." Many people ask when the Palestinians "converted" to Christianity, he said. "We have to remind them that we've been here since the first Pentecost when we are mentioned in Acts 2.11," Younan responded.
A recent study reported 162,000 Palestinian Christians live in the Holy Land, Younan said, adding that 120,000 live in Israel (within 1949 borders), 40,000 live in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and 2,000 live in Gaza. Before 1948, Christians made up about 15 percent of the population in historic Palestine.
Today Christians are less than 2 percent of the population in the West Bank and one-quarter of 1 percent in Gaza, he said.
The ELCJHL consists of about 2,000 members in six congregations. In the West Bank and Israel there are congregations located in Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. The church also has one congregation in Amman, Jordan.
Despite claims of Christian persecution by Muslims as the reason for the Christian population decline in the Middle East, Younan said the study concluded that the decline is a result of "the political situation manifested in the occupation and the loss of hope in a just peace."
"We are very worried about the future of Palestinian Christianity. If present trends continue there will be no living, local Christian community (there) in 15 to 20 years," he declared.
The future of Palestinian Christianity is not in occupation, violence, war or extremism, Younan told the audience. "It is in a just peace, for we believe that Christ has come to give us life, and life abundantly," he said.
Younan cited several examples of "unbearable" conditions for people in the Middle East: land confiscation; building of "illegal" settlements while Palestinian homes are demolished and building permits are denied; the path of the Israeli separation wall that cuts through Palestinian towns and neighborhoods, separating families and farmers from their land; and the Qassam rockets that fall on Israeli towns near Gaza despite several attempted cease-fires.
In addition, an international aid boycott of the Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority has devastated an already depressed economy, Younan said. "According to UN statistics, 45 percent of Palestinians are unemployed and 65 percent are under the poverty line," he commented.
The "siege" on Gaza and the 2006 war in south Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah left the Israelis and the whole Middle East in "a cloud of uncertainty," Younan said. "Politically, in some ways, we have gone back almost 20 years, as both Israelis and Palestinians are struggling with the recognition of the other," he said.
Younan said there are some promising developments including the possibility of renewed efforts at peace talks -- with help from the US government -- provided there are "solid efforts to achieve justice."
"We continue to affirm that we want Israel to have security and Palestinians to have justice and freedom. The security of Israel is dependent on freedom and justice for Palestinians, and freedom and justice for Palestinians is dependent on security for the Israelis. This is a symbiotic relationship that is the only formula that will bring a lasting peace," he said.
Younan argued that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is at the heart of Middle East turmoil because Arabs and Muslims see this as the test of the Western world's relationship with it. "It has created a great divide between the East and the West, the occupied and the occupier. We continue to believe that the road to peace in this region is first through Jerusalem and then through Baghdad and the rest," Younan said.
The bishop said he believes several actions are needed to help bring about peace in the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians must recognize each other based on 1949 borders; renounce violence, including targeted assassinations and excessive use of force; honour past agreements on both sides including the freezing and/or dismantling of settlements on Palestinian land; include religious leaders in advising negotiators on religious issues; and hold an international conference and negotiations to deal with the core problems of the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians.
Other factors have a significant effect on Palestinian Christians, Younan said. Peacemaking is a biblical calling, the essence of the ministry of reconciliation Jesus brought to the world. Palestinian Christians are called to be ministers of reconciliation, brokers of justice, defenders of human rights, instruments of peace and prophets to speak the truth to power.
He said that Palestinian Christians and Muslims should "walk together ... as Palestinians, not separated from one another." And that Americans should speak up against "Christian extremists" in the United States who don't want Palestinians to have justice, good relations with Muslims and good relations with Jews.
The bishop also encouraged Lutheran schools to focus on teaching peace, co-existence and democratic principles, where Muslim and Christian students learn to live with one another. "We are teaching our children -- Israelis and Palestinians -- how to live together without walls, fences or barriers, without occupation or violence. We are teaching our children how to turn anger into love and our fear into healing", he said.
Younan declared that Jerusalem must be shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims, and that it must be the capital for both Israel and the future state of Palestine.
The Lutheran leaders also laid out three principles that could lead to reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis: a culture of "truthfulness" and breaking a silence that hides the suffering of people who are "vulnerable and violated;" reconciliation built on justice, the fruit of which is peace; and a willingness by both Israelis and Palestinians to forgive, which can bring "true reconciliation."
"I always make a point to urge Israelis to see God in the Palestinians and urge Palestinians to see God in the Israelis. I urge both to accept the other's humanity with all of its pain and suffering. If we do so in the spirit of forgiveness, then we can recognize each other's human, civil, religious, national and political rights. Only then will justice come. Only then will the Holy Land be the Promised Land of milk and honey for Palestinians and Israelis," Younan concluded.