World Prayer Day: Prayers from the Palestinian territories


Friday, 1 March 2024 (16:43 IST)
It's Sunday mass at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem's Old City. Pastor Sally Azar, a Palestinian Christian, leads the prayers for a small congregation seated around the altar of the Protestant church.
On Friday, Azar will be one of the local pastors holding services for the Women's World Day of Prayer.
"I grew up in the church here, and I've always been part of the World Day of Prayer services. And it was quite ecumenical, and it grew on me: It's like, 'Oh, what an amazing day for women,' so it's an honor to keep the tradition," Azar told DW after the service.
The 27-year-old from East Jerusalem is the first female pastor to be ordained in the Lutheran community in the Holy Land.
This year, the Palestinian National Committee has prepared the Women's World Day of Prayer, a global Christian grassroots movement. First celebrated worldwide in 1927, an ecumenical service is held annually in 150 countries around the world on the first Friday in March.
On this day, the same liturgy and prayers, written by a different country each year, are celebrated in each participating country. It's a day that focuses on women's concerns, hopes and prayers, and it's the largest ecumenical event of Christian laywomen.
Portraying the Christian presence
"For a lot of the [Palestinian] women, it's been quite important that the World Day of Prayer portrays the Christian presence in the Holy Land, and it portrays the suffering that the women have been facing as well here because of the [Israeli] occupation that we've been living for the past years," said Azar.
"It is also portrayed in the liturgy, where they all crave peace, and they all bear a lot of the responsibilities in this society."
Azar is often described as a "trailblazer" for women in the region.
"I've only been ordained for almost a year now, and it's been quite new for people. Not everyone quite knows how to deal with being a woman pastor in this land or this society. At least in the Lutheran congregation, they are more prepared. They learn about equality," she said. 
One of the smaller challenges, she says, is how to address her properly as a female pastor in Arabic. But there is more at stake: While the Lutheran church is open to women's roles in the church, most communities, such as the Greek Orthodox or Catholic churches, are not as supportive.
"The religious leaders, they have been quite openly talking about it, yet they don't support it, of course," said Azar. "But at least they are dealing with it with respect."
Israel-Gaza war adds urgency
This year's theme resonated with many. The theme is chosen years in advance — just like the national committee preparing the service.
The current conflict, however, adds urgency to its message. Azar says that the bible verse resonated with the women preparing the liturgy and led to many discussions.
"They were asking, is it now our Christian brothers and sisters here in this land? Is it our literal neighbor? Is it the Israelis? Is it the Jews? Is it the Muslims? So all these questions arose when talking about bearing one another in love," said Azer.
But there was also a deeper meaning for some, as "bearing" in Arabic relates to the term of being pregnant. "They all associated it with that they carry not only the whole generation," said Azar. "And it's their responsibility to protect their children, although they don't feel like they can do that."
The Palestinian communities have been working on the liturgy and prayers for the past two years and submitted their contributions last year. Then came the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, where militants killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostages. 
Israel launched a retaliatory military campaign, vowing to defeat Hamas, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US, EU and others. Almost five months later, about 130 Israeli hostages are still being held in Gaza. And more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, and much of Gaza has been rendered uninhabitable.
In the aftermath of October 7, criticism and accusations of antisemitism surfaced in Germany in relation to the Palestinian liturgy and prayer.
"It was quite hurtful to see that only Germany from all around the world were the ones who changed the liturgy. They said, okay, they want to contextualize and change things. Yet we thought, okay, we get that they have problems there," said Azar.
Adding context is one thing, but for many, it went too far, she said. "It felt like someone is telling us how to pray, someone is telling us what words to use in order to describe our situation and how we feel."
Support from Germany
Despite the controversy, her counterparts in Germany stress their solidarity with women in the Palestinian territories.
"Of course, we support the World Day of Prayer and are part of the worldwide prayer chain in about 150 countries," Ulrike Göken-Huismann, chairwoman of the German committee of the Women's World Day of Prayer, told DW.
In light of the October 7 attacks, the planned texts have been "very carefully and cautiously" contextualized and adapted, said Göken-Huisman. The changes have been well received by women in German congregations, she said, citing feedback by email or in telephone conversations.
"And we stand in solidarity with Christian women in Palestine," she said, adding that although the relationship has not been easy in recent months, the dialogue has continued.
Göken-Huisman thinks that it is important for services to be held in as many parishes in Germany as possible on March 1 and for "these voices from Palestine to be made heard," she said, adding that especially now, with the war in Gaza, the situation needs more attention than ever.
Prayers for those suffering
In East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, several prayer services will be held on Friday. But here, not everyone will be able to attend.
Accessing holy sites and meeting each other has become more difficult since October 7 for Palestinians. In general, Palestinians from the occupied West Bank have always had to apply to the Israeli authorities for permission to come to Jerusalem.
In recent years, Christians from Gaza have only received a limited number of permits to visit relatives in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and then only during Christmas and Easter.
"It has been quite difficult. As for our congregations, we have six congregations in the Lutheran Church, one in Jordan and one in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank. And for all these four churches, we can't get permission for them all to meet together," Azar said, adding that since October 7, more checkpoints in the occupied West Bank have been closed or had their opening hours limited. There is concern that access to holy sites will be even more complicated during the upcoming Easter week.
Given the situation, the celebration of Women's World Day of Prayer is particularly important this year, said Azar, who said they were "thinking of all the civilians who are suffering from the war. We added prayers for the situation."

Read on Webdunia

Related Article