The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope, Ramallah

"In Ramallah we see the strength of the ecumenical movement in this part of Palestine
in its particular sense, and in the world in its general sense."
                      Pastor Ramez A'nsara

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah was founded in 1954, mostly from refugees from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  The Spirit of Ecumenism is very much alive here in Ramallah, where Christians from Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical churches celebrate the same church calendar together by using the Orthodox Easter calendar and the Western Christmas calendar.  

The ongoing illegal Israeli occupation remains a central reality affecting daily life for the church.  The ever- and yet never-changing political realities like movement restrictions and evergrowing settlements inhibit Palestinians from living normal lives. With the increasing isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, the Kalandia checkpoint has become more like an international border through which only the most privileged Palestinians can pass through - and then only on foot with proper permits. 

Lutheran Church of Hope provides a summer school for children, a youth program that involves young people with international and other local Christians, meals-on-wheels for the elderly and infirm, weekly Bible studies in homes, and women’s gatherings to build awareness of attitudes toward women in the church and the society. An active laity works with the pastoral staff.

The neighboring Lutheran School of Hope is also an important community link for the congregation.

Mailing Address:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hope
P.O.Box 162
Ramallah, PA
via Israel

Tel: +972 - 2 - 2953447
Fax: +972 - 2 - 2988543

Profiles of the Congregation
December 2003

The city of Ramallah is a “twin town” with Al-Bireh, located about ten miles north of the heart of Jerusalem. Ramallah was primarily a Christian town before the influx of Palestinian refugees during the 1948 and 1967 wars. The historical tradition says that two brothers of the same Christian family founded the twin towns in about 1550 AD. The brother who stayed in the Ramallah area had seven sons who had many children. This created several families or clans of people who were all related.

Today Ramallah is a center for government and business in the Palestinian society. Many diplomatic offices and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also are found in Ramallah.

Ramallah is in the West Bank, right at the northern edge of the Israeli-declared boundaries of Larger Jerusalem. There are at least five military checkpoints which close in the city. The Kalandia checkpoint connecting Ramallah with Jerusalem and the Surda checkpoint connecting Ramallah with many villages, including Bir Zeit and the university, are the largest and busiest ones. The Palestinian people living in Ramallah must have an Israeli-issued permit to leave through a checkpoint, and most people do not have such a permit. There are many restrictions imposed that make permits very difficult to obtain. As many have said, “Ramallah is like a big jail.” By this they mean that their life is circumscribed by the town’s borders that are guarded by Israeli soldiers, military vehicles and equipment and fences. At times the borders are sealed completely, by orders of the Israeli military, allowing no entrance or exit.

The Lutheran Church of Hope
The Lutheran Church of Hope and the Lutheran School of Hope are located near each other on two pieces of property in a residential section of Ramallah. (More information about the school will be found below)

The Lutheran church building has three levels, the top level being the sanctuary, narthex and pastor’s office. The middle level has a large parish hall with a stage, along with several classrooms and a kitchen. The lower level houses three kindergarten classes. Built into a hill, the church sanctuary is entered from the street. Outside stairs take the visitor down to the large playground and the door into the parish hall. A few more outside stairs bring the visitor down to the kindergarten playground and entry doors.

The Rev. Ramez Ansara is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah. He was born and raised in Ramallah and his family continues to live there. Pastor Ansara received his theological training at the Lutheran Seminary in Tanzania, Africa, called Makumira University College. Classes at this seminary are taught primarily in English, but Swahili is the language of the people. Pastor Ansara can speak Swahili, and spent time with the Tanzanian people as well as studying at the seminary. Upon returning to the ELCJ, Pastor Ansara served an internship with Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan, who was the previous pastor of the Ramallah congregation.

The History of the Lutheran Church and School in Ramallah
The Lutheran church in Ramallah was founded in 1954. Graduates of the Schneller Lutheran School and of the Lutheran School of Talitha Kumi who resided in Ramallah requested that a Lutheran church be established there. Also living in Ramallah were Lutherans who had taken refuge there after the war in 1948-49. Thirty-eight families were charter members of the congregation. The specific request for a Lutheran church in Ramallah was made of the heads of the church in Jerusalem. The Rev. Daoud Haddad, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem (later to become the first Bishop of the ELCJ), came for two years to conduct worship services on Sunday afternoons. These services were held first in the Ramallah Quaker meeting house, and then in St. Andrew Episcopal Church. When the Rev. Bassem Nijim was called to serve the new Lutheran congregation in 1956, a house was rented to be a center for religious services and parish activities. The congregation was already raising money to build a new church building and a parsonage. The hope for a Lutheran school was also primary in the minds of the people.

Land was purchased and the parsonage was built in 1961. The cornerstone for the church building was laid in 1961 and the building was completed and dedicated in 1963. Pastor Nijim and the congregation were determined to establish a school to be connected to the Lutheran Church of Hope. In 1965 a kindergarten was started with ten students and two teachers. Each year after that classes were added. By 1975 a two-story school building had been constructed on a piece of land adjacent to the church. Children from kindergarten through grade nine were being taught. A third story was added in 1982, expanding the school to K-12 grades. More recently in 2001, a partial fourth story has been built on the school, housing a computer laboratory, a small performance hall and classrooms for music and art.

Pastor Nijim died in 1983, leaving a legacy of congregational and educational work in the Lutheran Church in Ramallah. His two daughters continue to live in the Ramallah and Jerusalem area. His wife and two sons are in California, USA.

The next pastor to serve the Lutheran Church of Hope was the Rev. Munib Younan, who today is the Bishop of the ELCJ. He was the pastor in Ramallah from 1984 until his consecration as bishop in 1998. The Rev. Ramez Ansara is the current pastor, having been ordained in the Lutheran Church of Hope by Bishop Younan in 1999.

Today the Lutheran Church of Hope congregation has about ninety-two Palestinian families (about 430 baptized members), nearly all of whom are refugees. Only two women in the congregation are descendants of the original founders of Ramallah; the others have come to Ramallah as refugees during the last fifty-five years (most after the 1948-49 war), primarily from Jaffa, Ramle and Lod, towns now inside the state of Israel. They have established themselves in businesses and homes in the Ramallah area but remember their towns of origin. Pastor Ansara points out that about 1500 Lutherans from Ramallah have emigrated; most are in the United States and Canada.

Worship and Congregational Activities at the Lutheran Church of Hope
Worship services are held each Sunday morning at 10:30 am in the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah. Sunday School is held at 9:30 am in the parish hall. Even during occasional times of curfew imposed by the Israeli military, the Lutheran church bells ring announcing worship and people come to pray. A curfew is the total closure of a town, a time when people are forbidden by the Israeli soldiers to leave their homes. Pastor Ansara and the Lutheran church members have decided to hold worship services regardless of a curfew. People leave their homes to sing, pray, hear God’s Word and partake of the Sacraments in the church.

In addition to regular worship services, the Lutheran Church of Hope has many activities for children and youth, including a young adult group.

1) The Sunday School program includes about sixty children in 2003. On a Sunday morning the children first meet together where they are all taught prayers and hymns. Later they are divided into classes according to their age where they hear Bible stories and enjoy art, crafts, discussions and storytelling.
2) For one month during the summer the children enjoy a daily Summer Camp held on the church property. In July 2003 sixty children learned Bible lessons and songs, in addition to special off-site trips and swimming days. Often volunteers come from partner congregations in other countries to assist with the yearly Summer Camps.
3) More than ninety young people participate in youth activities. The “juniors” are from 13-18 years of age; the “seniors” from 18-30 years. Pastor Ansara is the leader of both groups (he is also the “Youth Pastor” for the ELCJ as a whole). Bible studies, guest speakers, exchange visits with neighboring church youth groups and various volunteer activities take place with both age groups. Additionally, the young people participate in local youth retreats and also in overseas trips and retreats.

The women of the church meet for study and activities. A unique project of the women’s group is the traditional Palestinian embroidery work they sew for greeting cards, bookmarks, eyeglass cases, tissue boxes and also pictures and designs on fabric intended for framing. Knitted items for babies are also made. An attractive cupboard in the narthex of the church holds the items that are offered for sale. Occasionally orders for the embroidery work are shipped overseas, at the request of individuals or other church groups.

The Meals on Wheels Program in Ramallah, a Service of the Lutheran Church
A community service project of the Lutheran Church of Hope in Ramallah since 1995 is the Meals on Wheels Program. Currently sixty-two poor, elderly people in Ramallah are being helped. Twice each week the Meals on Wheels workers deliver hot meals to about twenty-five people. Other services of the program include transportation to medical appointments, payment for and delivery of prescriptions from a pharmacy (many prescriptions are filled at the hospital at little or no charge), delivery of staple foodstuffs, such as rice, coffee, fresh fruit and vegetables, and help with light housekeeping and laundry. The Lutheran church also provides “friendly visitors” to come to the homes of the people in the program. Occasionally the people in the program are transported to a luncheon and program at the church parish hall or another location in Ramallah. The Meals on Wheels Program is supported by gifts and donations from various church groups and individuals, including the World Hunger Appeal Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM) is also active with the program as well as a local non-governmental group, Ata. The Presbyterian Church USA has also contributed to the Meals on Wheels Program.

The Lutheran School of Hope in Ramallah
Today the Lutheran School has about 400 students enrolled, from kindergarten through grade twelve. The headmaster is Mr. Michael Abu-Ghazaleh; the deputy principal is Ms. Suheila Mreibe.

The Lutheran school is well-known in Ramallah for its emphasis on the basic subjects as well as opportunities in the arts, music, computer science and business. The boys and girls learn English and German, in addition to their own Arabic language.

The school was hard hit during the Spring 2002 invasion of Israeli troops into Ramallah. Curfews were imposed during which all people had to remain at home, so no school classes could be held. During one of those curfews, a group of Israeli soldiers broke down doors to enter the empty school and did much vandalism during several hours. Neighbors could hear glass and wood breaking in the school and telephoned the pastor to keep him updated. No one could go out to inquire or protest. The curfew continued for a few more days, but as soon as it was lifted the pastor, headmaster, staff and church members hurried to the school with cameras to record the damage and begin the clean up operation. Students and families assisted with the repairs and cleaning so that classes could resume as soon as possible. In fact, within a week the students were back in school.

The Lutheran School of Hope is a place of safety and security for the children. During the very difficult months of Spring 2002, when Israeli army incursions and patrols along with extended daily curfews were imposed, the children longed to be in school and expressed their joy at being in class and among teachers and friends when they could return.

The Ecumenical Grouping of Five Christian Churches in Ramallah
In 1995 the joint Lutheran-Anglican scouting program was established, enabling young people to grow in an ecumenical environment. The Lutheran-Anglican relationship is particularly strong and meaningful. The two congregations worship together at least ten times each year: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, several times during Lent and all worship services during Holy Week.

Over the years more and more ecumenical relationships have been established in Ramallah. Today the five major Christian churches are joined in an ecumenical fellowship in which they partner in worship, education, community projects and social activities. The pastors and priests in the ecumenical grouping often meet together. Included in the ecumenical fellowship in Ramallah are the Greek Orthodox Church (Transfiguration of the Lord); the Roman Catholic Church (Holy Family); the Episcopal Evangelical Arab Church (St. Andrew’s); the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church (Annunciation); and the Lutheran Evangelical Church (Hope).

The Lutheran Church of Hope also has important partnerships with the Grefson congregation in Oslo, Norway; with the Johannes Kirchengemeinde in Berlin; and with another German congregation, the Karlshorst parish. There are many contacts with other congregations in Europe and the United States. Now, Pastor Ansara states, there are mutual efforts being made to establish partnerships with other churches in the world, especially in America and Africa (Tanzania in particular).

Looking to the Future
A visit with Pastor Ansara revealed some of his hopes and dreams for the Lutheran Church of Hope. “I believe that a community center involving sports, education, a library, health and culture would be a wonderful addition to the church and our community. I see children, young people and adults coming to the center, having a place to go and things to do that will enable them to use their talents and develop their bodies, minds and skills.” Eventually Pastor Ansara would like to have a community center building, but he is already developing a youth center in the parish hall level of the church. Every day young people of high school age and older are coming to play games, sing and visit with one another. The pastor sees this as an excellent way of providing the young people with something to do, a place to be, in a city surrounded by Israeli military forces which make it impossible to go places outside Ramallah.

A second goal of Pastor Ansara is to encourage the youth more and more to attend worship services. He believes it is important for young people (and all members) to have a clear understanding of their identity as Lutherans. He is making some adjustments in the worship liturgy, wanting to help people feel the gospel as their own. Each Sunday he is encouraging the young people to sing a song of their choosing in the service, using music as a way of worship and identity. The pastor also wants to use Bible studies and spirituality as a way of answering the question, Why am I a Lutheran? The whole congregation can learn and gain from this, he believes.

Another goal is to be involving young couples in a new group which would feature Bible studies and various social activities, giving them a special place in the church. An additional goal is to provide young people and young couples with reasons to remain in Palestine, rather than emigrating. To that end, Pastor Ansara and the church elders are once again discussing a long-held dream -- the possibility of building a housing project. When completed it would offer affordable housing and home ownership to young couples who otherwise feel the need to leave. The pastor stated that at the moment he can count fifty-two young men who, in the next four to five years, will be ready to marry and will need a place to live. Apartment and house rentals amount to more than a person can earn, so the hope is to build affordable housing to encourage young people to stay in Palestine.