Bishop of Jordan Addresses U.S. Arab and Middle Eastern Lutherans


July 23, 1999


BROOKLYN, N.Y. (ELCA) -- The Christian Bible says "the Holy Spirit was poured out upon all nations in Jerusalem. Everyone here goes back to that first church," the Rev. Munib A. Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan (ELCJ), told the Association of Lutherans of Arab and Middle Eastern Heritage (ALAMEH) at its Third General Assembly here July 5-7.

ALAMEH is an association of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In his keynote address Younan, whose ministry extends to Palestine, Jordan and Israel, addressed the role of ALAMEH in the 2000-year-old history of Christianity in the Middle East and the challenges facing the Arab and Middle Eastern church as it moves into the year 2000. "The most important epochs in Christianity happened in the Middle East," Younan said. He named several critical periods and described the "epoch of the Seven Councils" as "the best time Christianity experienced in its history. In times of persecution, Christianity flourished and grew." The Islamic period allowed a good relationship between Christianity and Islam. "Christians and Muslims were in dialogue in the Middle East. The dialogue we have today with Muslims goes back to the 7th through 9th centuries," Younan said. "During this Islamic period Christians lived in a dignified way. It was a golden period for Christians." "The Crusades and the advent of the missionary changed that," Younan continued. "The Crusades brought deterioration and created a gap between the local Christians and Muslims.

The missionaries were responsible for establishing churches. It was in the time of the 19th century that we saw the birth of the Lutheran, Anglican and Presbyterian churches. But the Turkish regime, which allowed the missionaries into the region, encouraged negative competition." Younan spoke also of the current age. "We can't erase history, but we can learn from history. We can construct and build a better future. Christians in the Middle East are still suffering from their history. If we talk about the contemporary period, we see this pain as the catalyst of the emigration from the Middle East of many Christians.

We look at terrible events -- 1948 when Palestinians were dispersed, the war in Iraq. It was Christians who emigrated during these times." The continuous emigration of Christian Arabs for social and economic reasons caused them to leave home, heritage, history and their most sacred places. "We have a crisis on the concept of Arab nationality. Many do not know of the existence of a Christian church," Younan said. He illustrated this with a story of his entering the United States this week. "When I arrived at the customs desk, a man was checking passports. He couldn't believe I was from Israel and a Christian. He couldn't connect the two ideas." This need for a Christian Arab identity led participants into the second part of Younan's address -- the challenge for the contemporary Christian church. One challenge the church faces is to proclaim that "Arab Christianity is a shrinking minority."

Arabic Christianity has its roots in the Middle East and has a prophetic role there. "It is the salt in society and the leaven in the dough," said Younan. "As we enter the year 2000, we must have this mentality. We must encourage the creation of a Christian Arabic identity and the sense of belonging to the community. We have a problem in that our sense of belonging is very weak. Anything can shake us. We've become strangers, not compatriots. Our Christian identity is in crisis. Political turmoil stirs up and encourages us to leave everything and emigrate," said Younan. He continued, "This is why I'm an advocate of creating a contextual theology. Arab Lutheran, Arab Orthodox, Arab Anglican, Arab Catholic -- what does it mean? If this is not clarified, then the crisis is perspective and there is no solution. "Arabization" is essential, because our roots go back to the Bible." "Another challenge is the important role of education. We must open and operate Christian Arab schools. If there are no schools, there will be no Christianity. If we don't maintain schools, we lose our witness." Why should we have schools? Younan asked. "To maintain Christian Arabic identity. Schools encourage and teach openness. Schools teach and encourage Christian and Muslim dialogue.

They terminate fundamentalism and fanaticism, teaching a balanced opinion about one another." Younan said it was not only important to educate the young but all people and the government as well. A study of the new Palestinian curricula, for example, inspired Younan to write an article about the curricula from the Christian perspective. The patriarchs and bishops in Jerusalem adopted this article as a basis document for negotiation with the education department, which was very positive. "This is the role we must assert in the Middle East. Even if the role is minute, if our numbers are little, we must encourage Christian identity in the Middle East through all avenues," asserted Younan. "Another challenge is the actualization of the ecumenical movement," said Younan. "There are four recognized families of churches in Palestine.

We need to have leadership to push the agenda of the church and leave doctrinal differences to the theologians. The primary item on the agenda is social justice. We can die together or live together," said Younan. He said the ecumenical movement goes slowly. In April of this year, at a general assembly in Lebanon, all but one of the families of churches agreed to adopt a joint, mutual version of the Lord's Prayer and Nicene Creed. There are three separate dates for Christmas and two separate dates for Easter among Christians in this area. They are discussing movement to one date for each Christian holiday. "It will mean a lot to our witness in the Middle East to have a joint celebration of Christmas and Easter," he said. "Arab countries respect us as Christians. They respect us and ask our demands. We have to take advantage of this and work together. We have to live with Muslims. To live life as frightened or whispering behind backs is no way to live. We must be frank and speak what we think, even to our Muslim brothers and sisters. We must have perpetual dialogue, clear vision and objectivity in laying the basis of discussion. The churches in the Arab world must be interdependent with one another, yet maintain their independence from the Western church, which would impose its own leadership on the church." "What is the active role of Christians in community ... in nation building?" asked Younan. "They have the role of reconciliation and justice. There are those who would say, 'Oh leave it alone, you are endangering your family or yourself.' But if I'm silent, the stones will speak," he said. "As we move into the year 2000, we have to talk to one another.

Christian-Jewish relationships are very significant," Younan said. "We must coordinate relationships among local Arab churches and the church in diaspora. We need to support the indigenous remnants of churches in Jerusalem," Younan told the assembled. "Do not listen to criticism by some of those in the United States about problems of the church in the Middle East. You have to support your mother church. If we cease to exist, there are no longer Arab Christians." Younan told participants, "You have important roles here. You must have a sensitive commitment about these matters wherever you live. You must promote awareness about the difficulties and hardships we face. People are listening, but they haven't yet heard the prophetic voice coming out of you." "We are in pain and we are harmed by sects that come with the apocalyptic movements," he said. Younan explained that there is a "dangerous thread running through these movements, proclaiming that the land from which Christ comes and to which he will return is the land of the Jews. Others are not welcomed in Jerusalem." "Therefore," Younan said, "we have to join hands with local Arabs and our Western sisters and brothers in Europe and the United States to combat these weird, sectarian movements." "Finally,I am optimistic about Christian Arab identity in the Middle East. The Christ who put us there will never forsake us.

But Christ needs us to work together to administer the message of salvation. I am very happy that the ELCA takes us seriously and very happy for the work done here among Arabs and Middle Easterners through the ELCA. The ELCJ thinks of ALAMEH as a new-born babe, growing hand-in-hand with the major work going on in America. We need your support and your prayers here and we will do the action there," Younan said.

[** Eileen Smith chairs the communication committee for the ELCA Metropolitan New York Synod, New York.]

For information contact: John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or NEWS@ELCA.ORG