A brief history of ELCJHL
Compared with other churches in the Middle East, the history of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan & the Holy Land (ELCJHL) is rather short.
The ELCJHL traces its origin to the middle of the 19th century when German and English Evangelical Christians came to Palestine to support the Christian minority in the area through diaconal and mission work. Their activities were many and were channeled through a variety of organizations and institutions.
The initial phase of the Lutheran mission efforts began in 1841 when a joint British Anglican and Prussian Evangelical bishopric was established in Jerusalem. In 1851 Theodor Fliedner, of Kaiserswerth, was invited to bring four deaconesses to the Holy Land to begin a hospital. Four years later, a school for girls, Talitha Kumi, was begun. This was the first school to offer girls a proper education.
In 1860 Johann Ludwig Schneller founded the Syrian Orphanage in Jerusalem. His work among homeless boys had its origin in a civil war in Syria, at that time a province of the Turkish regime. Some 30,000 Christians lost their lives in that war and many children became orphans. (Eventually, that work was moved to the Bekka Valley of Lebanon and was administered by the Lutheran World Federation.)
The Anglicans and Lutherans worked together as one body until 1886 when the Prussian Lutherans went their own way, partly due to political and theological differences in Europe between Prussia and England. The German Lutherans focused their efforts on social work and education at a time when the British Anglicans were emphasizing conversion. Today the ELCJHL continues this call to witness through education and health care for Palestinians regardless of faith and provides for the spiritual needs of the Arab Lutheran community.
The original aim of these Protestant mission efforts in the Holy Land was not to create a new church in the area but to serve the poor and provide a proper education for Christians. Only later the former pupils of the Lutheran Schools helped to establish the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many of these members became refugees at the time the State of Israel was created.
Until 1947 the Lutheran Church was a mission church under the spiritual leadership of a Propst appointed by the Evangelical Church in Germany. On 7 May 1959, at a time when what is now the West Bank was part of Jordan, the ELCJHL was officially recognized as an autonomous religious community with a royal decree from King Hussein. Thus it was officially called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan though in practice it is known simply as the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCJ). The ELCJ Synod met on Jan. 14, 2005, and unanimously decided to add “and the Holy Land” to our name, so that the name more accurately reflects the full scope of the ministry of the Lutheran church that is serving in Jordan, Palestine and Israel.
During the 1970s the ELCJHL began to make its way toward independence as Lutherans world wide focused on “church to church” relationships rather than “church to mission field” relationships. In 1979 the German Propst transferred spiritual leadership to the first Palestinian Bishop, the Rev. Dr. Daoud Haddad, who had been vicar of the Jerusalem congregation for more than 30 years. The Synod of the ELCJHL had elected him as the first Arab Lutheran bishop in the whole of the Middle East.
The election of a Palestinian as bishop proved to be very important as the ELCJHL took its place among the churches of the region. The tenure of the Bishops of the Church is as follows:
- 31 October 1979 – 30 October 1986 – Bishop Dr. Daoud Haddad
- 31 October 1986 – 31 December 1997 – Bishop Naim Nassar
- 1 January 1998 – 12 January 2018 – Bishop Emeritus Munib A. Younan
- 12 January 2018 – present – Bishop Sani Ibrahim Charlie “Barhoum” Azar
Congregations of the ELCJHL are located in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, and Ramallah, and in Amman, Jordan. The latter two congregations were initially established to serve refugees from the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, especially Lutheran families who were driven from their homes in Lydda, Ramle and Jaffa. The ELCJHL can properly be called a church of refugees and is grateful for the efforts of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) among Palestinian refugees that began in 1950.
Today the ELCJHL operates four k-12 schools in Ramallah, Beit Jala, Bethlehem and Beit Sahour. Each year, the ELCJHL Schools serve more than 3,000 students. The ELCJHL also administers three Educational Programs, including the Al-Mahaba Kindergarten on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the Martin Luther Community Development Center in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Environmental Education Center in Beit Jala.
The ELCJHL Bishop’s Offices are located in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem. Located on Muristan Road in the “Resurrection neighborhood,” the Bishop’s offices are only a stones’ throw away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The ELCJHL has been a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) since 1974 and maintains a “companionship” or partner relation with many other churches worldwide. It is a member of the Middle East Council of Churches and was accepted into the membership of the World Council of Churches in 2013. The ELCJHL is active in ecumenical affairs and interreligious dialogue locally, regionally, and globally.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church faces many challenges in this new century. A particular concern is the emigration of many Palestinian Christians from the Holy Land. And, as Palestinians continue to struggle for autonomy and nationhood, they are confronted with the need for improved education, better access to health care, improved employment opportunities, stronger leadership, and a greater recognition within the international community.
The ELCJHL remains a strong Christian presence in these demanding times, providing leadership in ecumenical efforts and offering both spiritual and social services to meet the daily needs of the people.