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Holy Land visit stirs call for Christians, Muslims and Jews to learn to live in peace

The stories and struggles of people Bishop Martin Wells encountered on a recent visit to the Middle East convince him of the need to bring Christians, Jews and Muslims together to build mutual respect and counteract the impressions spread by a few adherents of hate.

Martin Wells
Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells

His 12 days in January in the Holy Land with a group of 90, including 40 other North American Lutheran bishops, has stirred his need to learn more.

“We must talk with each other so the heart of the Abrahamic faiths’ message of love will be in stark contrast to those who discredit the faiths by making it appear that people who believe in God are killing each other,” said Martin, who is bishop of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

He is still reflecting on mixed feelings stirred by a combination of his uncertainty about how to react at ancient pilgrimage-tourist sites, by his encounters with people caught in the current struggles, by his new awareness of grassroots peace initiatives and by his realization that he has much more to learn about the Holy Land.

Since returning, a recent incident of someone distributing Aryan Nations leaflets in Coeur d’Alene also reinforces his awareness that local work is needed.

“If we are concerned about where relations are headed in the Middle East, we also need to improve relations here,” he said, expressing hope for more interfaith dialogue.

“We have amazing opportunities associated with globalization,” Martin said.  “There’s only one way forward: the world needs to knit itself together in new ways.”

The eight-congregation Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land invited the 65 U.S. and Canadian bishops.  Hosting them were Bishop Munib Younan and the Israeli government. 

When bombs fell on Gaza in late December, 15 bishops dropped out.  With the bishops, 50 spouses and others traveled from Jan. 5 to 17.  Martin’s wife, Pastor Susan Briehl, led several of the daily worship services for the delegation.

The goals of their three days in Jerusalem, six days in Bethlehem and two days on the Sea of Galilee were pilgrimage, accompaniment and advocacy for peace. 

At some holy sites, Martin felt uncertain how to respond, seeing the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection in the large, dark, domed Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  People wept and wailed in different languages as they touched a rock beneath an ornate Orthodox altar—said to be the top of Golgotha where Jesus was crucified—or touched a marble slab where Jesus’ body was said to have been prepared for burial.    At another spot, people walked down a few steps to a spot that was said to be Jesus’ tomb.

The delegation accepted an invitation by the Franciscans, who administer the church’s Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, to return to celebrate holy communion. Bishop Younan’s sermon called people “on behalf of Jesus to love one another.”

As a first-time visitor to the Holy Land, Martin was disconcerted that three different sites in Bethlehem claim to be the crypt where Jesus was born.

At the Mosque of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site shared by Jews and Muslims because it holds the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, there were bullet holes in the walls from a 1994 shooting of 34 Muslim worshipers.

In Jerusalem, they visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and met with the two chief rabbis of Judaism.  The rabbis told of Israelis suffering from rockets fired from Gaza and concern that Hamas seeks to destroy Israel.

“There are serious issues on both sides,” Martin said.  “We also knew civilians in Gaza were being killed.”

One day, the bishops encountered several manifestations of the tensions:

• Israeli government leaders gave them pens and certificates saying, “Advocates for Israel.”

• On the old city’s narrow streets, Israeli security guards and Muslim clerics advised them it would not be safe to go to the Dome of the Rock, the second most holy site for Muslims.

• At the Western Wall, a site for all three religions, an Israeli flag was planted.

In predominantly Muslim Bethlehem, seven miles outside Jerusalem, Martin saw how the Israeli security wall divides West Bank communities and families.

He learned that Israeli settlements are on just two percent of the land, but 48 percent is under Israeli security control and 25 percent is uninhabitable, leaving Palestinians with 25 percent of the land, broken up by the wall.

“Israelis built the wall to keep suicide bombers out of Jerusalem,” he said, “and bombings have dropped dramatically.”

Martin saw rubble of a Palestinian family’s home.  He learned that as children grow and marry, Palestinians add another story to their homes without required building permits that they cannot obtain.

The families may live in the homes for years, never knowing when the government will bulldoze their houses for the permit violations, he said.

Balancing stories of Israelis and Palestinians stirred new thoughts for Martin.

“We overlook that there’s more than a story of God saving faithful people,” he said.  “For example, Joshua’s entry into the Promised Land was at the cost of the people who lived there.  History comes through the perspective of conquerors.”

Martin also saw alternative views in protest art that jarred his thinking. 

Graffiti on the wall depicted a Palestinian girl patting down an Israeli soldier, represented to him “children trying to call adults to behave themselves.”

Amid the seeming irreconcilable discord, he also heard encouraging, but rarely reported, examples of grassroots efforts for peace:

• In Bethlehem, Palestinians and Israelis work together in the Parents Circle to stop the destruction of houses.

• A pastor built the International Center Bethlehem (ICB) training facility beside Christmas Lutheran Church as a contribution to the local tourist economy and as a source of employment.  With 100 employees, the ICB is the third largest employer in Bethlehem.

• The World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel promotes efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a just peace.

• Six Lutheran young women are spending a year in the Middle East with the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission Program, promoting peace and justice.

Martin sees hope not only in the U.S. government opening dialogue around the world but also in his two daughters’ international experiences: 

• Mary Emily had been to Tanzania, Thailand, Ireland and Bosnia before she was 25 and will spend next year in Bolivia, and

• Magdalena spent four months in the Middle East on a college study tour through the region.

“Our children will be our teachers,” he said.  “We do not need to be afraid.  The world will come together if we move out of the way.”

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