Mirror exclusive: Bishop Younan answers 12 questions about faith and refugees

Bishop Munib Younan of the ELCA Lutheran Church spent five days on Augustana’s campus this past week visiting with students, faculty and staff. Hosted by Campus Ministry, the bishop lectured at places of worship about the importance of interfaith relations. Younan, a native of Jerusalem, was the acting bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land from 1998 to 2018.

What is the process of becoming a bishop? 

In the Lutheran church and our own constitution, you have to select a bishop when the [previous] bishop retires. The pastor who should be elected will have served 15 years in various capacities in order that the bishop knows how to deal with congregations and with issues of concern. I was elected in 1996 as a bishop and was consecrated the first week of 1998. For us, bishops are for life. If you retire, you retire from administration, not from the mission of the church.

Have you always wanted to be involved with the church?

Yes. Since my childhood, I have been involved with the church. I have been called since I was 11 years [old], but I never expected to become a bishop. I did not study theology to become a bishop; I studied theology in order to be a missionary in God’s field. But, you know, sometimes when things come, you cannot refuse them. 

Were your parents Lutheran?

My parents became Lutheran. My mother was educated in the Lutheran school, [and my parents] wanted us to grow up Lutheran. Because I’m a refugee, the Lutheran church embraced us. So for me, my natural way of thinking was only Lutheran, and even today my natural way of thinking is only Lutheran. I cannot change it—that’s my identity.

Can you explain being a refugee?

In 1948, we had 30 families in Be’er Sheva and we were all dismissed from there. My father had to leave his grandparents’ home and find refuge in Jerusalem. Thank God that the monasteries and convents in Jerusalem of other Christian churches received us; we didn’t have to live in refugee camps. Many times I [ask], ‘had I lived in a refugee camp, would I have become a pastor or a bishop? What would have become of me?’ It’s very important when we speak about being a refugee or migrant or a displaced [person], that we educate these people and empower them for justice. For example, I have a United Nations refugee card, but I’ve never used it because I was educated and I assumed my responsibilities [as bishop]. I was empowered to work in my church and to work in the world.

What does it mean to be a Lutheran in the Middle East?

It means that I carry a message. It means that I carry, with the other churches, the gospel of love. It means that I have to show that Lutheranism has its own nuances compared to others. For example, I translated “The Augsburg Confession” to the Arabic language. We have learned from that tradition [in “The Augsburg Confession”] two important things that reflect what a Lutheran is in an Arab-Palestinian context within the Middle East. 

The first thing is that we are living in a society of merit — everything counts. It’s very important what our Lutheran tradition tells us — we have to live by grace. How can we show the love of Christ in a world of merit? That’s a challenge. The second thing — if you are a Lutheran, you are an ecumenist. We, Lutherans, are known to be ecumenical. You cannot be ‘only Lutheran’ and [say] ‘I don’t accept other churches.’ It’s very important to accept other churches. Thirdly, we carry with us the open message of liberation from the Bible. We are very well known to work for gentle justice. For example, [we work] in a patriarchal society to change the law so that men and women have equality. Fourthly, we have the power, as Lutherans, to be open to other religions and [work] with them for the common values of living together and respecting the other.

How have you adopted an accepting attitude in a place that can revolve around conflict?

All my life I have lived in the old city of Jerusalem. Three minutes [away] from me is the Holy Sepulchre Church where Jesus was crucified and rose to heaven. Four minutes [away] is the Wailing Wall of the Jews. Five minutes [away] is the Dome of the Rock of the Muslims. So, in this context, you think ‘am I the only one existing [here], and where are the others?’ Of course, I will not deal with you as a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian; I will deal with you as a human being. When I accept you as a human being, it creates mutual respect and understanding. If we can present a disagreement in a dignified way, it’s halfway for justice and peace. I have to respect their traditions. During Ramadan, when [Muslims] are fasting, I will not take take a sandwich and walk in the street and eat it; this is not sensitive to the other religion. 

When you live with the other, you try to adopt to their faith without following that faith. We accept the other for good living with each other. We accept their narrative, even if we disagree.

What is one common misconception about you or your work?

I don’t know what the misconception is—I don’t know what people think. I think they think we, religious leaders, are living in the “other world,” as if we are not living in reality. Some have said that, but it’s not true. When I go to dialogue meetings, I go with the joys and sorrows of my people under my skin. People may think that ‘it’s easy for you bishops.’ And that’s not true. Not everyone understands that you are not that way.

To what or to whom do you attribute your success?

I attribute it to the prayers of my mother.

You’re getting an award this week. What is it?

The Davenport Catholic Diocese decided to give me the Pacem in Terris Award [from John XXIII], which is peace on earth. [The award] deals with a theological understanding of human rights in the church and in the world. They created this prestigious award, and it was given to some special people like John F. Kennedy, Mother Teresa and to the Dalai Lama last year. I’m in good company now. I don’t feel proud; I feel privileged and humbled. 

What do you like to do in your free time?

Well, I like to work. I like to read sometimes. I like to see my children and granddaughters and tease them. [My work] takes a lot of time.

What has been your favorite part of Augustana?

It’s important that in the classes [I visited], there was interaction between me and the students. Sometimes when you live in the United States, you live in your own bubble and you don’t see the other. I found that the students were open to hear. They might disagree, but they’re open to hear. I’m also noticing that the chapel is the center of this institution. This is important because the chapel is a sign that we depend on God and his power.

What else do you want the Augustana community to know?

I want to thank them. Please always have big ears and big eyes, but a small mouth. Secondly, please try to have an international exposure or experience. It’s important because you are living in a country that is free, but not every country in the world is. Sometimes you take it for granted. There are other people your age in many parts of the world who don’t have freedom, who don’t have as much education, who cannot live their lives in a free way. As much as you can, enjoy this privilege that your parents or grandparents have given to you. Work so that other nations will enjoy the same freedom and liberation.


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