Women in Leadership

This COCOP report and the request to focus on the role of women in church and society was a good exercise for me to look back at almost a 30 year-long history in Bethlehem and to share with you the stories of leading women who emerged at Christmas Lutheran church in Bethlehem and were pioneer in more than one field. This report provide thus a needed documentation not only for the church today or to COCOP but also as an important record to keep for history and for generations to come.

It was in 1995 when we felt a need in the society at large to invest in women and to empower them to get into leadership roles. For this reason, we opened in the same year Dar Annadwa as a women training center. This developed later to become DIYAR. For this important ministry we recruited a young woman and a member of our church, Ms. Rana Khoury, who have just finished her Master thesis on "The Role of Palestinian Women during the First Intifada." Rana played an important role in the development of DIYAR and became in 2006 Diyar's Vice President for Community Development and Outreach. In 1998 another member of Christmas Lutheran, Ms. Viola Raheb, who happens to be my sister, was appointed as the ELCJHL School's Director, becoming the first and so far the only woman to hold this position. Viola is forced to live in Vienna and is currently finishing her doctorate in protestant theology. In 2002 Ms. Naila Kharoub was recruited to head the newly established Dar al-Kalima School, thus becoming the first and so far only female principal at any of the ELCJHL schools. Ms. Kharoub, though not a Lutheran and in the meantime retired, continues to be an active member at Christmas Lutheran Church. Around this time, Ms. Marwa Nasser, another member of the congregation, was sent to Lebanon to study Christian Education. She graduated and came back and served in the congregation for several years as the director of Christian education before getting married to an Austrian and moving to Austria. She is currently counseling Syrian refugees in Austria. From 1996 to 2006 Rev. Sandra Olewine served as associate pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church, thus making Christmas Lutheran Church the first Lutheran church in the Holy Land to have a full time female pastor serving the congregation over 8 years.

In 2006, Diyar launched the Diyar for women sport, the first of its kind women sport center incubating the first female soccer team in Palestine. Women football changed dramatically the role of women in the society. Honey Thaljieh, who grew up at Christmas Lutheran Church became the first Palestinian female captain of the National Palestinian women soccer team.  She was the first female in the Middle East to be admitted to enroll in the FIFA master program to become a trainer of trainers. Currently she is serving at the FIFA headquarter in Zurich as FIFA ambassador for peace through sport. In 2006, we opened also Dar al-Kalima College and the first Lutheran institution of higher education. Dr. Nuha Khoury, with a PhD and three masters, and a member of Christmas Lutheran Church, was recruited as the dean and therefore becoming the first female dean of any university college in Palestine. Around the same time, Christmas Lutheran Church hired a young graduate of theology, Ms. Niveen Sarras, to serve as the director of congregations' Christian education program. Dr. Sarras recently graduated from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago with a doctorate in Old Testament Studies and was ordained as an ELCA pastor becoming the first Palestinian female pastor.

Four years ago, my youngest daughter Tala, who completed the "Sahiroun" leadership training offered by our church at large, felt a desire to study theology. She is graduating later this month with a double major in theology and psychology from St. Olaf College in North Field, Minnesota. She will start with her graduate studies later this year and will enroll in an MA program in theological studies with the focus on women's studies. The women work at Christmas Lutheran Church, led by my wife Najwa, continues to provide training and to nurture community among women members of the church. Twelve years ago, Christmas Lutheran Church was the first church in the Holy Land to introduce a (40%) women quota by the elections of church elders. Currently we have Ms. Mai Nasser and Ms. Hala Faddoul serving as church elders.

We are thankful that Christmas Lutheran provided an incubator for these women leaders to emerge. Looking at these women and their service to church and society one cannot but thank the Lord for their leadership and commitment.

DIYAR also played an important role as an incubator for women in leadership. Today, Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture has two thirds women in administrative leadership positions in addition to 56% females in the student body. The training of women and their economic empowerment continue to be an important goal for many of our programs. The woman issue is not only an issue for women. This is why I participated personally earlier this year with many other world leaders in the UN campaign for gender justice with the "He for She Campaign."

Last but not least, I would like to dedicate this report to Karimeh Abboud, the first female photographer in the entire Middle East. Karimeh was born in Bethlehem in 1893 as the daughter of pastor Said Abboud who served Christmas Lutheran church for over 40 years (1905-1947). Karimeh rose to become the first female to dare to enter into a domain which was dominated by men. In the thirties of last century she was operating four studios in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Haifa, driving with her car from one place to another. She was not only an entrepreneur, but also a pioneer woman and one of the leading photographers of that era worldwide. Like many other women, her story was not told. In the church archives I was able to find only one reference to her at one of the archives in Berlin. Five years ago, we were able to research and publish her story. In the meantime, there are two films that were produced about her life and career. Currently, one of the leading novel writers in the Middle East is writing his newest novel focusing on Karimeh Abboud. Through his novel and this report we want to highlight and celebrate Lutheran women in pioneering and leadership positions. Without them, our ministry would not be what it is today.