Lutherans in Jordan, Holy Land dedicate new church near Jesus’ baptismal site

1/23/2014 12:00:00 AM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) -- In an effort to provide a place for Christians in the Middle East and from around the world to gather for pilgrimage and baptism, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land have officially opened the Evangelical Lutheran Church at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan. Dedicated on Jan. 6, 2014, Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan is located where Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus. 
            The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, a companion of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), is one of seven Christian church bodies granted a parcel of this baptismal land by H.M. King Abdullah II of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Both the ELCA and the Lutheran church in Jordan and the Holy Land are members of The Lutheran World Federation -- a global communion with 142 member churches in 79 countries representing more than 70 million Lutherans. The ELCA is the communion's only member church from the United States.
            The Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, presided over the dedication ceremony attended by more than 200 clergy, royalty and guests from around the world. Prince Raed bin Zeid of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan attended the service as the representative of King Abdullah.
            In his sermon, Younan spoke of the vision for this church, saying it is more than just a pilgrimage site because it provides an opportunity to share the plight of churches in the Middle East with those who visit the baptismal-site church.
            "Churches in the Middle East are destroyed, attacked, but in Jordan, we received permission to build our church. This shows that there is freedom of religion and that Christians are considered equal citizens. When pilgrims come, they need to know that Jordan and Palestine protect freedom of religion for Christians," said Younan.
            "This [church] shows, in a concrete way, [how to] help Christians in the Middle East by connecting pilgrims all over the world with us here, in Jerusalem, and in Bethlehem," he said.
            The Rev. Rafael Malpica, executive director for ELCA global mission, participated in the ceremony and told those gathered, "We rejoice in the dedication of the Lutheran Church at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan. In our baptism we participate in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, and in this place we are reaffirming our baptismal vocation of following in the steps of Jesus, participating through him in God's mission to restore community with God and with one another."
            The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land has about 3,000 members in six congregations throughout Jordan, Jerusalem, and the West Bank. The church's work is concentrated in educational and humanitarian ministries, helping to foster interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims and to promote a just peace in the Middle East.
            "During a time when many Christian communities in the Middle East are experiencing strained relationships with their neighbors of other faiths, it is refreshing to see such a strong commitment from King Abdullah for the thriving of Christian churches in Jordan," said the Rev. Robert O. Smith, ELCA program director for the Middle East and Africa.
            Faith leaders who took part in the dedication ceremony included the Rt. Rev. Alex G. Malasusa, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania and vice president of The Lutheran World Federation; Archbishop Anders Wejryd, Church of Sweden; and Bishop Atle Sommerfeldt, Church of Norway. The Church of Norway and the Church of Sweden are members of The Lutheran World Federation.
            "The baptismal site has a remarkable degree of archaeological veracity. It a described in several pilgrim accounts from the 5th century onwards. It is a joy that the site is being renewed today in the spirit of Christian devotion," said Smith.
            The Rev. Rolf Pearson and his wife, Deacon Kerstin Pearson, seconded by the Church of Sweden, were installed during the dedication service as the caregivers of the site. Over the coming months, they hope to develop a pilgrimage site for those who wish to visit. In addition to the church, the site includes a pastor's house and a multipurpose hall.
            The Mission Investment Fund, the lending ministry of the ELCA, provided a loan for the baptismal site project.
            "The Mission Investment Fund is humbled to be able to participate in a building project at such a historic site," said Eva M. Roby, president and CEO of the ELCA Mission Investment Fund. "Our mission is to help churches grow and expand, and it is especially inspirational to support such important work in the Holy Land. We know this pilgrimage and retreat center at the baptismal site will beckon the faithful for generations to come."
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with about 4 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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Candice Hill Buchbinder
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