Lutheran Bishops Plant Olive Trees, Pray at Israeli Separation Barrier

North American Lutheran bishops visited this small Palestinian village in the West Bank, northwest of Jerusalem, an area where the Israeli separation barrier cuts through Palestinian agricultural lands, making way for Israeli settlements to be constructed. Many of the bishops helped plant olive trees near the barrier as signs of peace.

Forty-four bishops representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) are participating in a weeklong series of meetings with religious, political and community leaders in Israel and the West Bank, and visiting religious sites. Their visit, concluding Jan. 13, also focuses on support and encouragement for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), which is timely because of the war in Gaza.

Some 500 trees are to be planted here eventually. Before they left, the bishops visited a local Palestinian man’s home, now surrounded on three sides by a tall metal barrier. Newly constructed Israeli settlements surround his home on the other side of the fence on land that was once his, he said. The bishops prayed at the barrier before leaving.

In remarks here, Adnan Husseini, governor of Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority, said life in the area was difficult for residents because of the barrier. "We need permission to move in and out of the wall," he said. "If we want to build a Palestinian state, we have to move in this state."

The bishops visited this area to do two things, said the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop. "We will cry out songs of lament for all people, and we will plant olive trees here as a sign of commitment for the generations to come … to see olive trees, not walls."

The Rev. Susan C. Johnson, ELCIC national bishop, promised to remember the people.

"We promise we will return home and continue to accompany you," she said. "We will speak to our governments, and we will work for a just peace for all in this land."

Earlier in the day, the bishops visited the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah, a coeducational school. The school is one of four schools and four educational programs operated through the ELCJHL. The bishops and spouses were entertained by the school’s Al Raja Dance Troupe, and conversed with several students.

Majdi Habash, an 11th grader, and Mohammad Omar, a 10th grader, said they don’t know whether they will leave the West Bank once they complete school. They said their parents worry that they won’t return.

Omar said he hopes "the U.S. will look at us and Israelis as equals" under the new Obama administration. He said he wants the administration to help Palestinians and not give more weapons to Israel.

People in the United States do not have a clear picture about Palestinians, said Deema Beides, an 11th grader. "Please tell the truth about us," she told the bishops. "We’re not fighting for something that is not ours (land). The conflict is not about religion."

"Please let (others) know the truth," said Rana Burqan, a 10th grader. "Let them know that children in Gaza have a right to live. There’s no difference between Muslims and Christians. We’re all Palestinians."

The bishops concluded their day with dinner at the International Center of Bethlehem. Several local church representatives attended.

(Files from ELCA News.)

Further details on the 2009 Bishops’ Academy Trip to the Middle East can be viewed online:

Information about the Evangelical Lutheran School of Hope is at on the Web.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada is Canada’s largest Lutheran denomination with 162,000 baptized members in 613 congregations. It is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

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