The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
I send you the heartiest of Christmas greetings from Jerusalem, the city of our Lord’s death and resurrection. These greetings come from the whole of the ELCJHL, including our congregations in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and in Beit Sahour, where the shepherds first heard the Good News of his birth.
Sometimes, preachers and teachers try to be creative in their telling of the Christmas message. One of the students in our schools said: “It is the same old message of peace that we repeat every year.” She is absolutely right: It is the same message of our Prince of Peace. Still, had the Church not kept repeating for 2000 years the Good News of Bethlehem, the message would have been forgotten.
Even though the Christmas message is two thousand years old, it continues to touch hearts, minds, and souls around the world. With the shepherds in Beit Sahour, we still hear the Angels proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
In this Christmas message, I would like to share three points with you regarding the current situation in the Middle East. I will address the region as a whole, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the ongoing issues faced by Christians in the Middle East.
The Middle East
The whole Middle East is in turmoil. Some analysts are saying that this turmoil is the birth pang of democracy. While some work to address the people’s demands and build stronger civil society, others are introducing political and religious extremism into daily life. We are becoming numb to the daily reports of worsening conditions. But we cannot be calm or indifferent when we see children, youth, and women becoming victims of war instead of building their futures and their countries.
What is happening? Where are we heading? Some have encouraged the shift to sectarian violence and, unfortunately, they have succeeded in their aims. My heart breaks when I hear about the lack of safety, even in refugee camps. Their conditions were made even more difficult by our recent winter storms.
In the midst of this suffering and confusion, what does Christmas mean? Will the people of the Middle East see light in the midst of this darkness? How can the light of freedom and peace shine? Some continue their calls for international intervention. My call is that this Christmas will be an opportunity to intensify our prayers to the Lord might soften hardened hearts so peace can prevail.
With me, I ask that you pray for war to cease and for all governments to respect their people’s need for human rights, including women’s rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Now is the time for people who suffer from violence—those living with the effects of war or who are beaten by political and religious extremism—to see the light of Christmas, the light that shines in the darkness.
The Israeli-Palestinian Situation
Will the Palestinian-Israeli conflict be solved by ongoing negotiations? All who are living in the Holy Land are troubled by this question. Is there willingness for peace based on justice? Frankly speaking, I do not know. However, if anyone thinks that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can continue as it has in recent years, there will be no winner on either side of the dividing line. The longer it takes for peace to come, the more people’s hearts will be hardened, the more difficulties will obstruct the way forward.
Every day, we hear of new measures—expanding settlements, for instance—that do not help bring peace. Peace based on justice requires bold leadership that dares to see the value in fruitful, flourishing coexistence. Our government leaders—both Israeli and Palestinian—should recognize that they have a vested interest in justice both for themselves and for their neighbors. What heritage will we leave for our children and grandchildren if a peace based on justice does not become a reality?
Christmas teaches us that the birth of the light was resisted by the powers of darkness. Christmas teaches us that, even in the darkest moments, the birth of the light becomes a reality and a fulfillment of prophecy. Christmas teaches us that the light is stronger than the darkness, that whole hearts were touched by the birth of the light, and that the light will overcome the authorities abiding in darkness. Christmas returns the love of peace in our hearts.
Peace based on justice is possible for Israel and for Palestine. As Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, so peace will again be born in this land. Please pray this Christmas for Palestinians and Israelis to see the light of justice in the midst of the darkness.
Arab and Middle Eastern Christians
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land deeply appreciates the concern expressed through the World Council of Churches for Christians in the Middle East. We are also delighted that His Majesty Abdullah II of Jordan hosted a summit for leaders in the Middle East to publically raise Christian concerns.
We should also be careful, however, to not generalize the Middle East. The region is not just one country. The situation in the Holy Land is vastly different then Syria or Egypt and the situation in Jordan is much different than what is happening in Iraq. I would like to reflect on the situation in Syria.
At its beginning, the struggle in Syria was between the regime and the opposition. As the conflict has shifted toward sectarian violence through the involvement of foreign fighters, Christians in Syria have grown increasingly worried. His Beatitude Gregory III, Patriarch of the Church of Antioch, has recently said that 450,000 Syrian Christians out of 1.7 million have already fled the country. Twelve nuns in Maloula were kidnapped by extremists for no other reason than that they are Christians. We ask: how can we stand with one another in the face of this violence. How can Christians around the world shape the approach of their governments?
Hanna, a Syrian Christian, wrote: “As a mother and a wife, I want to leave, but as a Christian, I want to stay. Every time my husband and I pray, God gives us a burden on our hearts: stay in Syria.” This is just one example that Syrian Christians are nationalist, they equally love their country. We also pray with Hanna and her husband that the situation in Syria may be settled.
What Hanna expresses is typical to all of us Arab Christians in the Middle East. We love our countries. We do not consider ourselves a minority in need of protection from other religious groups or foreign governments. We are an integral part of our people. Throughout the Middle East—and indeed in many places throughout the world—Christians are calling for equal citizenship with equal rights and equal responsibilities.
Our response to growing extremism and discrimination is to redouble our efforts to build civil societies that respect human rights, gender justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.
Even if darkness is expanding, Christmas continues to show us the way to the babe of Bethlehem. Even if powers and principalities are trying to oppress justice and persecute others who are different, Arab Christians, with all moderate forces and the silent majority, continue to carry the light of Christmas. The babe of Christmas asked us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
I ask each of you, all over the world, to pray for all Arab and Middle Eastern Christians. Pray that the Lord may continue to give us courage to be His living witnesses. Continue to pray that Christianity will be an instrument of peace and reconciliation.
May the light of Christmas continue to shine in the darkness and may God bless you all.
Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year in 2014
وكل عام وأنتم وعائلاتكم بألف خير
Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land