Bishop Azar: Keeping hope alive in the Holy Land

2 Nov 2023

The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land says the biggest challenge is to accompany families who live in fear for their lives as the conflict between Hamas and the Israeli army continues.

Bisop Azar

Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar in the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo: LWF/A. Hillert

Lutherans in Jerusalem mark Reformation Day amid tensions and fear over Gaza conflict 

(LWI) - “It is very hard to speak about hope here in Jerusalem,” says Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar, leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. On 31 October, he led a Reformation Day service in the Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, where Lutherans from many different national congregations traditionally gather for the annual celebration. 

“This year should have been a special event because we are marking the 125th anniversary of the Redeemer Church and we would normally have a reception after the service,” he says. “But all the plans were cancelled due to the war in Gaza where so many people are suffering and fighting for their lives.”  

“The Old City is quite empty compared to past years” Bishop Azar continues. “Life here in Jerusalem is standing still and there is a lot of tension. There are rarely any events or gatherings beyond our regular Sunday services, as most people are afraid to go out late in case anything happens. There is a lack of trust between people, Palestinians and Israelis, and each is afraid of the other.” 

Reformation means looking after the needs of people and renewing their lives.

Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land 

Despite the tensions, Christians from other denominations also attended the Reformation Day service, with Anglican Archbishop Husam Naoum invited to preach. “For the first time, the Greek Orthodox patriarch also attended our service, which is a sign of ecumenism and mutual support among Christians in the Holy Land,” Azar reflects. 

While Reformation Day recalls the work of the 16th century reformers in Europe, he notes that “in the Holy Land reformation only started in the 19th century, when the missionaries began their work with Christians in this region.” Today, he says, “reformation means looking after the needs of people and renewing their lives. The mission began with education and schools for girls, so we continue to take the lead in women’s rights and gender justice today – this is the beauty of reformation work.” 

But the war in Gaza has brought life to a virtual standstill in Jerusalem, with people living in fear for themselves and their families. “The Christians in the Holy Land are all related or closely connected to each other, so each family here has members and friends in Gaza,” the Lutheran leader says. “I personally know friends who have lost family members and I know that many in our congregation lost relatives in the airstrike that hit the grounds of the Orthodox church compound.” 

Christians calling for reconciliation 

“As Christians and as human beings, we are against all violence, what is happening in Gaza and the Hamas attack. Nobody has the right to end the life of another. But the problem for the Palestinians did not start with the Hamas attack, it has been there since 1948.” Nowadays, he says, the biggest challenge is to accompany our church members, as many of them are asking, ‘When will it be our turn?’ “It is difficult to speak about hope in this context,” he adds. 

It is important to make a distinction between Palestinians and Hamas, he insists. “As Palestinian Christians, we have been here for many years, not recognized, but calling for reconciliation. We are serving people’s needs and we are working for the future of the whole human family.”

“The priority right now is to end the war, to stop the killing of women and men, children and the elderly,” Bishop Azar emphasizes. “We hope that our Christian brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world are praying for us, praying for Christians in the Holy Land and for the rights of Palestinians to exist here.”

LWF/P. Hitchen