A nod to Palestinian equality

The ordaining of the first female Christian pastor in the Holy Land amplifies the importance of women to peace.

Sally Azar, a Palestinian Christian, is ordained as the first female pastor in the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, Jan. 22.

In prolonged conflicts, small breakthroughs toward peace can sometimes herald larger shifts. One such step forward may have just happened in Jerusalem. On Sunday, a young Palestinian woman became the first female Christian pastor in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Christians make up a tiny portion of the Palestinian population, just 1% in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the investiture of the Rev. Sally Azar in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land could send a wide ripple. It is an important marker for gender equality and social justice at a time when Palestinians are poised for a generational shift in political leadership – a shift in which women expect to have an influential role.

“It’s strange that we still have to argue that women can teach the Bible or perform the sacraments,” the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, told the BBC. “This tells me that despite the progress we’ve made as Palestinians, when it comes to empowering women and women’s rights, that there is still work to be done.”

The formation last month of the most conservative Israeli government in history has deepened international concerns over the prospects of a future Palestinian state. But the more pressing issue for Palestinians is the future of their own leadership. The last presidential election was in 2005, the last parliamentary election in 2006. Those ballots set up an enduring political divide.

The Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas presides in much of the West Bank. The Islamic fundamentalist party Hamas, meanwhile, controls the Gaza Strip. In 2007, Mr. Abbas sidelined Parliament and has ruled by presidential decree ever since. Five unity agreements between Fatah, the party of Mr. Abbas, and Hamas have dissolved.

Both factions are deeply unpopular. A December poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah found that 81% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip say the institutions run by the Palestinian Authority are corrupt. Some 69% said the same of Hamas-led institutions.

That disenchantment, along with Mr. Abbas’ long tenure in office, is fueling anticipation of change. Separated by emigration, exile, and the physical barriers of the Israeli occupation, women and young Palestinians are uniting through social media. Civil society groups are training young men and women for roles in peace negotiations with Israel and internal Palestinian reconciliation. Their work recognizes that women, in particular, bear the brunt of conflict and are therefore instrumental to peace.

“The way we live is difficult – Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, Israelis, and Jews – all living together as we all try to find our ways to adjust together,” Ms. Azar said in a 2019 interview with the Lutheran World Federation. “We are struggling with the empowerment of women in our society due to attitudes in our culture. ... The commitment to the empowerment of youth and women, I found this really important.”

Generational pivots in leadership are an opportunity to reset values. For Palestinians, an upwelling demand for equality is evidence of their readiness and right for self-governance.

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