Palestinian . . . Lutherans? To many American Christians following the conflict in the Holy Land, this moniker sounds as oxymoronic as the more general “Palestinian Christians.” American evangelical end-times buffs—and their number is legion—simply cannot admit, as they attempt to match daily news items with chapter and verse from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation, the fact that many Palestinians are not Muslims but fellow Christians. Some of these indigenous residents of the contested region—and their number is growing—even adhere to what Gene Edward Veith calls “the way of the first Evangelicals”: Lutheranism.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (and Palestine)—the ELCJ—traces its roots back to the 1898 founding of the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem by German missionaries and Palestinian converts to Christianity. Located a mere hundred yards from the traditional site of Christ’s still-empty tomb, Redeemer is the seat of the ELCJ’s bishop, Munib A. Younan.
Overall, the ELCJ boasts 2,000 members in six congregations located in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beir Sahour, and Amman, Jordan. Each congregation has a school, and Jerusalem’s Redeemer Lutheran supports the Augusta Victoria Hospital, located on the Mount of Olives for over 50 years.
Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem is a center of evangelical activity. In addition to the church itself (“near where the Word became Flesh”), the hillside campus includes the International Center of Bethlehem (Dar al-Nadwa), which has grown from a safe house for persecuted Palestinian refugees in 1948 to a cultural and intellectual center for the development of understanding between Palestinian Christians and Muslims, who have peacefully coexisted in the region for centuries. The campus also houses the Dar al-Kalima Academy, a thriving school that welcomes Palestinians of any religious and economic background, as well as Jews, to learn Christian teachings and language and vocational skills. The Health and Wellness Center and the new home of the Academy—whose construction was funded primarily by Wheat Ridge Ministries, an American Lutheran charity bankrolled by both the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—was scheduled to open in early May, on land donated by Yasser Arafat to the Christmas Lutheran Church. Arafat, according to the Wheat Ridge website (www.wheatridge.org/beth_2.htm#B1), understood the need of citizens of Bethlehem for educational and health-care opportunities.
Today, after several days of violent attacks at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force, the center is in shambles.
In early March, after invading Bethlehem (which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority), the IDF began to besiege the compound, damaging buildings and forcing the school to close, according to a March 11 press release from the ELCA News Service (www.wfn.org/2002/03/msg00087.html). Church attendance quickly dropped off, since parishioners feared for their safety. IDF?snipers took up positions surrounding the International Center.
After a tentative withdrawal and brief respite near the end of March, the IDF?reentered Bethlehem on April 2, in a line of tanks, bulldozers, and troops, observes Dr. Mary E. Jensen, a Methodist who lives in Bethlehem, according to the Christmas Lutheran Church’s website (www.annadwa.org/attack/storty_invasion.htm). Soldiers stormed the Lutheran compound, riddling windows and doors with bullets. An Israeli tank punctured the northeast wall of the school. The IDF ransacked the newly constructed Health and Wellness facility, destroying phone lines and computers and defacing the gardens and walkways. Israeli soldiers spray painted hateful graffiti in Hebrew over the walls of several classrooms and desecrated Christian artwork composed by students of the school. Crosses and crucifixes that once adorned doorways and walls lay shattered on the floor. Trees surrounding the compound were also destroyed, as Israeli tanks rolled over them.
Worse, two days later, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church, was held at gunpoint and threatened for two hours while he was led about the compound and forced to watch more of the destruction—including the ransacking of his office and files.
“Get out! This is a church!” cried the pastor from a second-story balcony, as IDF?soldiers stormed the doors of the compound. Readily identifiable in his clerical garb, the vigilant minister rushed down to meet the soldiers, after placing an S.O.S. call to his bishop in Jerusalem. The Israeli commander claimed that they needed to inspect a home that lay outside the church compound. When Raheb pointed out that this house was well outside the church’s land, he was ignored.
While watching the IDF?destroy his office, Pastor Raheb was able to answer a telephone call from Bishop Younan, who was desperate to know what was going on. When Raheb replied to Younan in Arabic, the situation escalated. “I believe they thought I was an expatriate pastor until they heard me speaking in Arabic and realized I was Palestinian,” said Raheb. Wrestling the telephone from him, the soldiers screamed at him, “Now you are detained. Don’t talk.” He was then berated by a gaggle of soldiers who barraged him with insults and obscene words, cursing all Arabs and threatening him.
The soldiers led him to his home, where, in the presence of his terrified wife and children, he was ordered to retrieve the keys to the new school and fitness building. While he was outside, some people in the street shouted that the IDF?had planted mines in the streets outside the compound and that some had already been detonated. The IDF?commander blithely nodded.
Reporters briefly gathered outside the compound, but when they shouted questions to Pastor Raheb, they were driven from the vicinity, and Raheb was forbidden to speak to them.
Though unharmed, Pastor Raheb and his family were, as of mid-April, unsure of the extent of the damage to the compound, since warnings of IDF?snipers remaining in position around the compound have kept parishioners from inspecting the scene.
Fear of snipers, sadly, is nothing particularly new for members of the ELCJ, who, in the fall of 2000, witnessed an IDF?takeover of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem, as Israelis used it as a firing post against rock-throwing Palestinian protesters below. In August 2001, the IDF?acted similarly at the Beit Jala Church of the Reformation, firing on young Palestinian men from the church’s rooftop.
On April 7, shortly after the IDF’s attack on the Lutheran church in Bethlehem, Israeli troops stormed another West Bank ELCJ congregation, the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah. A press release from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (www.lcms.org/news/2002_021.html) indicated that the pastor was “reportedly . . . used by Israeli soldiers ‘as a human shield’ as they searched the church complex, room by room.” Having torn apart refrigerators and desks, Israeli soldiers found no ammunition or bombs in the church.
Pastor Raheb remains vigilant in answering his vocation to preach the Gospel and care for the needs of his people. “We are here and we will remain here,” he told Wheat Ridge Ministries. “Nothing will be able to stop us witnessing to the Lord of life. In these Easter days, this is our conviction.”
Still, questions remain in the minds of Christmas Lutheran Church members Dr. Nuha Khoury and Viola Raheb, who were told to stay clear of the school by the compound’s guard, Jawad Abed Al Jawad, recently released from the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. “These acts of vandalism,” they said, “by the fourth strongest army in the world make us wonder what is so offensive about the Dar al-Kalima School, which our students have so proudly decorated with writings and artworks that talk about non-violence, peace, and dialogue between peoples? . . . Why is this hatred for places of beauty?”
I’m not sure Jack Van Impe, Pat Robertson, or any of the myriad others who believe God has given Israel the right to occupy this land by any means, fair or foul, would have an answer for those earnest and sincere questions. Fortunately, they won’t be troubled by them, since the American media refuse to report on these acts of terrorism against a defenseless, irenic, and Christian people living in the very “House of Bread” that gave birth to the Bread of Life. “The bread,” said Jesus, “that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). When will American Christians recognize their brothers who share their commitment to this truth?