The Holy Land has its first female pastor.
Sally Ibrahim Azar was ordained at the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City this weekend with hundreds of international well-wishers in attendance.
The 26-year-old Arab resident of Jerusalem, whose father is a longtime pastor at the Lutheran church, said she was overwhelmed by the support she has received both locally and from around the world.
“I really didn’t expect that there would be so much attention,” Azar said in an interview with JNS on Wednesday. She said that this was “a great step forward” for women in both Jerusalem and the Palestinian-controlled territories.
Still, the move belies the slow progress for Christian women in the Middle East, where Christians have faced persecution under Islamist-run governments and gender impacts everything from inheritance to divorce. Only five Middle Eastern-born women serve as pastors in the region, including three in Lebanon and one in Syria.
“It is important as a community that we move forward,” Azar said.
Azar has made controversial statements in the past. She stated in a video clip released last year that Palestinian “resistance” has taken different forms over the years. Azar also said of life in Jerusalem, where one-third of the residents are Arab, “We live next to each other rather than with each other.” She claimed there is no integration or communication between the city’s different peoples.
Asked about her comments, Azar said that the situation in Jerusalem is improving.
“I think it is changing. We are still in the beginning. Hopefully it will be more,” she stated.
‘We have been working on it’
Azar said her ordainment was not a surprise.
“We have been working on it,” she said, adding that plans for the event had been underway for years.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land has six congregations: one each in Jerusalem, Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Ramallah and Amman. It has around 3,000 adherents in total.
As a pastor, Azar will lead services and Bible study for English-speaking congregations in Jerusalem and the bedroom community of Beit Sahour.
About 185,000 Christians live in Israel, three-quarters of whom are Arab. Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip contain approximately 47,000 Christians, according to 2017 Palestinian figures.
Many in the Palestinian-controlled territories have faced religious persecution from Muslims, including in Bethlehem, which had a Christian-majority population before it was placed under Palestinian Authority control. The Hamas-led Islamist regime that rules the Gaza Strip is also unfriendly to Christians.
Most Christians in the Holy Land belong to the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches, which do not permit female clergy. A very small minority of Christians belong to Protestant congregations that do.
A voice for women
Born and raised in a religious family in Jerusalem, Azar taught Sunday school with her father, Bishop Sani Azar, but said it was very much her decision to pursue theology.
“It’s something I myself wanted,” she said.
Azar enrolled at the Near East School of Theology in Lebanon before continuing her studies in Germany and completing a two-year internship there. Throughout, she had her eye on returning to Jerusalem.
“I always wanted to come back to town,” she said.
Asked if she could be a theological voice for reconciliation, Azar said that interfaith dialogue is critical.
“Of course, I am not a politician, but we try to have dialogue on a religious level,” she said.
Mainly, Azar said, she wants to use her new position to be a voice and inspiration for women, though she acknowledges that their full integration will take time.
“I hope that I will be able to help women from all societies get to where they are hoping for,” she said.