ELCJHL to ordain the first female pastor in Palestine

ELCJHL to ordain the first female pastor in Palestine

By Damaris Dilling, Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees, Middle East Council of Churches

Next Sunday, 22 January, Ms Sally Azar will be ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, making her the first female pastor in Palestine. In 2006, the Evangelical Church had laid the foundation for this by deciding that women could also be ordained.

I arrive at the German Redeemer Church in the Old City of Jerusalem, where I have arranged to meet Sally for an interview and can literally feel the hustle and bustle and the special atmosphere inherent in the days before the significant ceremony. A journalist from the German television channel ARD is taking a few photos of Sally and her father, Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar. The liturgy for Sunday needs to be finalized, the first guests from Germany have already arrived and want to have a few words with Sally. After a brief chat with Bishop Azar, Sally takes me to the church café. We order two large cappuccinos and sit down in a quiet corner of the open courtyard of the old sanctuary. Despite the tension, Sally seems relaxed and looks forward to my interruption and takes time to answer my questions.

Ms. Sally Azar

Sally grew up in the church because her father was pastor there and is the bishop now. It is a second home for her, if not her home. She attended children’s services and youth events here, and it was here that the decision matured in her to become a pastor herself. It was always clear to her that she wanted to work in a church context and with people. And many people around her recognized the potential of a pastor in her early on. But it was important for her to make the decision of her profession alone regardless of other people’s opinions and to have a wholehearted yes not only to this profession, but to this calling. That is why it took her a while to decide for herself that she wanted to become a pastor. Of course, her father was always a role model but never an interferer; he let her go her own way and make her own decisions. In the meantime, she is sure that becoming a pastor is her true calling.

“My church needs me”

Sally studied theology in Lebanon and in Germany. Nevertheless, it was always clear to her that she wanted to come back to her home country after her studies. Even though she felt very welcome and comfortable in the church in Germany, she feels at home in Jerusalem and wants to serve here. Working with young people is particularly important to her here in the Middle East conflict: “Young people grow up here with walls and checkpoints. They know nothing else and think that this is the norm. I also grew up thinking that borders and checkpoints are commonplace. Only when I travelled to other countries did I realise that this is not everyday life in many parts of the world. I enjoyed this freedom very much and asked myself why this is not the case in my home country. Especially under occupation, young people need a place to recharge.”

Sally wants to do her best to help Palestinian Christians breathe a sigh of relief and create a home for them even in these difficult times. She will be working in the Jerusalem and Beit Sahur communities, and she is very much looking forward to connecting the English church in Jerusalem with the Arab assemblies and building projects together.

Of course, she feels the specialness of being the first Palestinian woman pastor to be ordained and thus also to be able to make a bit of history. But this circumstance is not so important to her personally, she is much more touched by the joy of her fellow people in the communities and the society about this fact, coupled with a great cordiality and a warm welcome that is shown to her. In 2006, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod decided that women could also be ordained. However, it took some time for society to accept this step. The communities were prepared for this by the establishment of the Womens Desk since 2008, where the equality of women and men in the church and society was addressed. Sally commented that it was mainly the women in the churches who were against a female pastor, not necessarily the men. Now the time has come, the church is pleased to announce that the first Palestinian woman pastor will be ordained on Sunday. Not only as a woman pastor, but also as someone who is still young, there will be many challenges for her. But she is experiencing a lot of support from the church leadership. Sally assumes that the first years will be apprenticeship years where she will also make mistakes. She fervently hopes that people will then associate these mistakes more with her as a person and less with her as a female pastor. One of her first upcoming ecumenical projects, for example, is the World Day of Prayer at the beginning of March, in which women from every church will participate.

In general, there are four ordained women in the Middle East in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, one in Syria and three in Lebanon. The first Syrian pastor is a close friend of Sally’s, they studied together in Lebanon, and she is also her mentor. Everything Sally brings with her now as a pastor is from her, Sally smiles at me. She feels well equipped with, amongst other things, a strong international network at her back.

I am convinced that Sally will become a wonderful pastor, with her warm manner she will take the hearts of the members of the church by storm and will become a great enrichment for the Christian Palestinian community. I am looking forward to attending the ordination on Sunday. Thank you, dear Sally, for the interview and your time.

Related: ELCJHL Women’s Ordination: A Short Documentary