During a recent young couples’ workshop in the Palestinian city of Jericho, held by the women’s desk of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), Ashraf Tannouspastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Beit Jala, watched over his young children as his wife took part in the meeting.

“Living in a patriarchal society, often [fathers] are ashamed if we have been seen by others taking care of our children,” said Tannous, whose wife is expecting their third child shortly. “But we should not be ashamed of such things—if we are seen taking care of our children, changing their diapers. These are my children. It is not a shame. It is sharing. It is cooperation. It is equality. It is justice.”

These child care norms are changing among young couples because they need two salaries at home, he said. His congregation has grown accustomed to seeing his children with him as he leads worship and delivers his sermon.

In the region’s traditionally patriarchal society, the sight of a young father caring for his children in public sends a powerful message, said Ranan Issa, director of the women’s desk.

“It shows that we don’t only preach about equality, we try to embody it,” she said. “A pastor taking care of his children … shows that he not only preaches [about gender equality in the home] but that he actually does it in his own family and [is] doing it in public, and there is nothing embarrassing about it. These are his children he is taking care of; household responsibilities are not feminine.”

Changing traditions takes time, but through workshops, conferences and meetings for youth, couples and the community at large—including ecumenical gatherings with other Christian and Muslim participants and religious leaders—the ELCJHL’s women’s desk is working on making congregations and others more aware of the issue of gender equality, Issa said.

Pioneering steps

The Lutheran church in the Holy Land has been taking pioneering steps toward gender equality since 1853, when the German evangelical mission (the ELCJHL’s predecessor) opened the first school for girls in Jerusalem at a time when education was reserved for boys, noted ELCJHL Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar.

Later, in the 1980s, the ELCJHL pioneered the idea of coeducation at its schools, and it went on to include women as church elders to the point where, today, 30% of church members are women.

Ten years ago the denomination voted to allow the ordination of women, and though a handful of Palestinian women went abroad to study theology, all opted not to return to their home country in the end. Now the ELCJHL is set to ordain Sally Azar—the bishop’s 25-year-old daughter—as its first woman pastor in Palestine.

“Women in our congregation came forward to present evidence of violence [to the Women’s Committee], and they were horrified to realize that in our Lutheran family law there was no way for these women to seek justice.”

Sally Azar began her theological studies in Lebanon when she was 18 and is currently completing her pastoral training in Berlin. Upon her ordination, she will also become the first Palestinian woman leader of any religion to serve in the Holy Land.

She knows that there will be challenges: “I feel I have a lot of strong people who will support me, and this encourages me more to come back and face all of these things. I want our church to take that first step. I want our society to develop in that way. This is something I really want to do. There are a lot of expectations, and I hope I fulfill them.”

A moment of pride for the church, her expected ordination will be but one of the ELCJHL’s many firsts over the past decade to promote gender equality within the church, including the establishment of the women’s desk that Issa has directed since 2018.

Equality for family issues

After approving the ordination of women, the synod took an additional step and in 2015 adopted a new family law, becoming the only church in the Middle East whose constitution provides gender equality in family issues, including inheritance rights.

The move was spurred by the work of five women on the ELCJHL Women’s Committee, including attorney Scarlet Bishara, who in 2015 was appointed the first woman in the Middle East to serve as a judge on the Lutheran Ecclesiastical Court. A year earlier, the court was granted autonomy by the Palestinian Authority to regulate all family affairs and personal status of the church’s members.

In Palestine and Israel, family law is handled not by civil courts but by religious courts, which have a certain degree of autonomy to determine issues of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance among the church’s own faithful.

In her 2020 report “ELCJHL Women—Leading the Change,” Issa noted that family laws applied in Palestine and the Middle East are among the most challenging obstacles in attaining gender equality and women’s rights.

“The majority of the family laws are discriminatory in all matters related to marriage, divorce, and child custody,” Issa wrote. “These laws also provide sufficient legal power for men to control the fate of their wives at home and in society. [The] ELCJHL still remains the only religious institution in Palestine that has integrated gender equality and women’s rights into their internal family law.”

In addition, under the current Israeli-Palestinian political situation, Palestinian women suffer doubly from the effects of military occupation, she said. It greatly limits their freedom of movement, and the patriarchal society uses the practical challenges of the occupation, such as identity checkpoints, to teach women that they’re safer close to home.

Inspired by the gender justice policy of the Lutheran World Federation, the five women on the Women’s Committee initiated a broad change in ELCJHL family law when they presented evidence of increased domestic violence and demanded that such incidents be considered by judges when ruling on a divorce.

“Now we have this law which shows change is possible, and we have been doing this, successfully incorporating gender equality in our family law, since 2015.”

Until then, Issa noted, the claim of domestic violence wasn’t enough to grant a divorce. “It was considered shocking that in Christian society there was such violence,” she said. “It was considered shameful to talk about it.

“But women in our congregation came forward to present evidence of violence [to the Women’s Committee], and they were horrified to realize that in our Lutheran family law there was no way for these women to seek justice.”

Using the teachings of Jesus to support their call for gender equality, and reviewing church and international family law and humanitarian documents, they submitted a draft proposal to church leadership that would ensure that women were treated equally. Despite support from the bishop, the draft was greeted with opposition by some and originally rejected by the church council.

In the documentary Made in God’s Image: The ELCJHL Gender Justice Journey, Bishara recalls that after presenting the draft they faced “resistance and skepticism” from some church members, so much so that in one meeting more than half left the room.

Nevertheless the women persisted, continuing to hold workshops and meetings to explain the importance of the changes. On the second vote the laws were passed.

Before those changes were made, according to Palestinian civil law, parts of which are based on Islamic Shariah law, mothers weren’t considered custodians of their children, so in cases of divorce, custody was granted to the father or even the paternal grandfather. Women also had no right to any monetary savings acquired during the marriage, and daughters were entitled to only one-third of any inheritance, Issa said.

The new ELCJHL family law not only brought changes in divorce procedure but also raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 and ensured equal financial rights and duties, equal custody rights for both spouses and equal inheritance rights.

“Now we have this law which shows change is possible, and we have been doing this, successfully incorporating gender equality in our family law, since 2015,” Issa said. “It is part of the law, and we hope in the future other faith organizations will be encouraged to adopt similar models and see our example as a model.”

The work continues

As a young woman in the church, Issa felt empowered by the fact that the Lutheran church had changed the family laws due to the work of the Women’s Committee, and this has motivated her to continue in their footsteps, not only teaching women their rights but also helping young couples adopt equal rights and responsibilities in their relationships.

The ELCJHL Women’s Committee and women’s desk continue to advocate for reform in the current family law system in Palestine, together with other civil and religious groups.

In a recent conference held in Ramallah and organized by the ELCJHL women’s desk, “Gender Justice From a Religious and National Perspective,” Bishara and Somoud Al-Damiri, first female chief prosecutor of personal status for the Upper Council of Shariah Courts, presented the women’s desk policy mapping religious family laws in Palestine.

The study reviews the constitutional guarantees for women under Palestinian basic law and highlights the legislative amendments to personal status laws that discriminate against women and preserve a patriarchal system.

Bishop Azar emphasized the important role played by the support and encouragement of bishops and pastors in demonstrating that the mission for gender justice is consistent throughout the ELCJHL.

“We can’t change society in a few months or years, but what we can do is start to change the way of education of our small children,” he said.

“I didn’t expect years ago [when I began my studies] to have this kind of strong community on the whole issue of equality and gender justice.”

When talking about gender justice, he begins with the biblical teaching that God created man and woman as equals, and stresses that Jesus didn’t differentiate between men and women when he preached.

“What we are doing and living is the work of human beings, not the work of God,” he said.

Other Palestinian churches have supported their work and their impending ordination of a woman pastor, he added, though they maintain that this is not yet the direction for their churches.

Meanwhile, Sally Azar is anxious to become pastor for one of the six local congregations, aware there may be some initial resistance to a woman religious leader.

“The pastors have been preparing our congregations, and that is a great thing,” she said. “The male pastors have been very supportive. I didn’t expect years ago [when I began my studies] to have this kind of strong community on the whole issue of equality and gender justice. I didn’t expect it to be so developed when I came home.

“I appreciate that … it won’t feel like everything is being thrown at me. I feel like everything has been slowly prepared.”

Judith Sudilovsky
Judith Sudilovsky is a freelance journalist who has covered the intersection of faith, politics, people and hope in Israel and the Palestinian territories for 30 years.

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