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June 12, 2003 ELCA News Service
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Prayer, Work Needed for Middle East Peace, Says Presiding Bishop

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Chicago (ELCA)-JB — On the heels of his first trip to the Middle East, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said he hopes the violence that left at least 27 people dead in Jerusalem and Gaza June 11 will not derail commitments to peace in the region.

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson led an eight-member delegation to Israel and the West Bank region May 21-28. The purpose of the trip was to demonstrate support for the 2,000-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (and Palestine) (ELCJ), which includes six congregations.

During the visit the ELCA delegation met with Lutheran and ecumenical church and lay leaders, participated in worship, visited refugee camps, spoke with Muslim leaders and spoke directly with high- level officials with the State of Israel, the Palestinian National Authority and the U.S. government. The group also visited Lutheran congregations, holy sites, schools and other institutions. The ELCA delegation traveled to various places in Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

In all of the meetings there was considerable discussion about continuing violence in the region, and what Israelis and Palestinians could do together to resolve conflict.

A deadly June 11 suicide bus bombing targeting Israelis, combined with Israeli military retaliation against leaders of the extremist group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the blast, left many questions about the current peace process for the Middle East.

"We denounce the forces of violence and grieve with those who mourn the loss of loved ones," Hanson said June 11. "We are also filled with a deep resolve to pray fervently and to work unceasingly for a just peace in the Middle East."

"We heard Israelis, Palestinians, representatives of the U.S. government and others express an absolute commitment to a lasting peace in the Middle East," he said of the Middle East visit. He added that he hoped a just peace will not "be another casualty of the tragic events we have witnessed."

In light of the latest violence, Hanson said he prays that all involved can show "restraint" against further acts of violence.

Reflecting on the visit itself, Hanson said he hopes that his visit to the Middle East "becomes an invitation for the church to come and be present as well," and he said he will ask ELCA members to continue to pray for peace and support U.S.-backed peace efforts in the Middle East.

It was difficult to get a good perspective of a complex mix of religion and politics in such a short visit, Hanson said, but he added it was important "to hear a breadth of voices."

"In each case our message was the same: We come as people praying for peace, as people committed to the way of nonviolence, as people longing for a just two-state solution that includes the end of violence," he said. In addition, Hanson suggested Israel must end the occupation of and its practice of establishing settlements in Palestinian territories, and terror attacks against Israelis must stop, Hanson said.

Among those who traveled with Hanson to the Middle East were the Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, bishop of the ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod, and the Rev. Floyd M. Schoenhals, bishop of the ELCA Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, Tulsa, Okla.

"We needed to let them (ELCJ members) know that their sisters and brothers in the ELCA are with them on this long and arduous road to peace," said Schoenhals in a message to the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod about the visit. "They needed us to be with them so that they will know they are not forgotten in the long and lonely hours of occupation, curfews, closures, military checkpoints and great suffering."

"It is clear that acceptance by both sides of the "road map" to peace has brought new energy to the hopes of all," Bouman said in a written message. "It has also become painfully obvious that both sides do not really know the other. Perceptions are hardened. Sometimes the mutual misperceptions are staggering."

Bouman also wrote that the idea of the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees to their land and homes in the State of Israel is "an absolute non-starter with even the most moderate Israeli leaders." The scale of human suffering and the trauma of the culture of violence is immense, he said. "Israelis speak of suicide bomb sites, Palestinian children show bullet holes in the walls of their school," Bouman said.

During the visit Hanson was a guest speaker at two graduation ceremonies at Lutheran schools in the West Bank. He said he often tells members that the Lutheran schools in the West Bank are a sign of hope, despite difficult conditions and occasional occupation by Israeli troops.

"With great perseverance, the Palestinian Lutheran Schools have continued to offer a safe environment — a learning environment where Christian and Muslim children together ... are deeply committed to nonviolence," Hanson said.

'Building Bridges' Important Ministry For ELCJ, Bishop

Hanson expressed his appreciation for the Rev. Munib A. Younan, ELCJ bishop, who, with his staff, did most of the organizing for the Middle East visit. Hanson and Younan talk often, especially when there is heightened violence against Israelis and Palestinians.

"For this brother in Christ, I am most grateful," Hanson said.

An important emphasis in the ministry of the ELCJ is building "bridges," Younan said in an interview. He said Hanson's visit helps build bridges between "two nations and three religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam)." Having a connection to the ELCA, the second- largest Lutheran Church in world after the Church of Sweden is significant, Younan said.

I know that I am not alone," he said. "I know that there is an ELCA — a Lutheran church that has the same confession, the same belief in the one Christ, that is helping me to proclaim the gospel freshly in such a world that is breaking. As such, we are together in mission. My mission here is your mission, and your mission is my mission. We are one church in Christ."

Younan, who has endorsed the "Road Map" for Middle East peace proposed by the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations, said achieving a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation of West Bank lands will give great hope to the peace process.

"When we speak about ending the occupation, we want to liberate the Palestinians from the occupation, but we want to liberate the Israelis from the mentality of occupation," he said. "Once you do that, you are bridge-building. The occupation is a sin against God and against humanity. It [destroys] the occupier and the occupied. It's good to end it for both."

Palestinians and Israelis must be allowed to "live in dignity," he said.

Younan added that he hopes the presiding bishop's visit to the ELCJ and the Holy Land will help members of the ELCA and ELCJ to pray for each other and deepen relationships.

"There is so much we can learn from Bishop Younan and the ELCJ about what it means to 'strive for justice and peace in all the earth,'" Schoenhals said. "As the spiritual leader of the ELCJ, Bishop Younan is also very much a public leader who perseveres in building relationships of trust for helpful and hopeful dialogue among both religious and political leaders."

At the center of the complex Middle East situation is the ELCJ, its ministries and Younan, Bouman said. "They are an incredible bridge into all these worlds," he said. "Our public support for them is critical at this time."

Support, Advocacy For Peace

At the conclusion of the visit Hanson said he was grateful for President George W. Bush's leadership to promote the road map for Middle East peace, and communicated that to the White House. Hanson said he thought it was important for Bush to hear "words of encouragement and gratitude" from a U.S. religious leader.

"In the name of Jesus and by his Spirit we need to be and become advocates for peace, justice and reconciliation in the world that God loves," Schoenhals said. "Both prayer and political advocacy are needed to bring peace, justice and reconciliation to the Middle East and to rest of the world."

People are clinging to the hope provided by the road map to peace, Bouman said.

"I pray that it (the road map) will not be another cul de sac," he said. "People are on the edge, and the Church is here in the midst of it. Please pray for the peace of Jerusalem."

Others who were part of the ELCA delegation were the Rev. Said R. Ailabouni, director for Europe and the Middle East, ELCA Division for Global Mission, Chicago; the Rev. Mark B. Brown , assistant director for international policy, Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Washington, D.C.; Ione Hanson, Hanson's wife; Betty Schoenhals, Schoenhals' wife; and John R. Brooks, director for news and media production, ELCA Department for Communication, Chicago.