Ordination in Jerusalem belies slow progress for Christian women in the Middle East

Religious affiliation regulates everything from inheritance to divorce.

The Rev. Sally Ibrahim Azar, center, a Palestinian Christian and council member of the Lutheran World Federation, is applauded by clergy after she was ordained as the first female pastor in the Holy Land, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

(RNS) — Speaking after her ordination at Lutheran Redeemer Church, in the Old City of Jerusalem, 26-year-old Sally Azar was a little nervous, but confident. She even regained her composure after noting the absence of a beloved relative and mentioning with regret that her teachers from Lebanon, where she had studied theology before going on to Germany, were unable to attend.

She told the packed crowd in the church, steps from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, that she never expected to be the first Palestinian woman to be ordained or to break a glass ceiling for other Arab women in Jordan and Palestine.

Azar is only the fifth woman pastor in the Middle East (the others are in Lebanon, Egypt and Syria) and the first of any denomination in the Holy Land. 

“I grew up in this church and I witnessed my dad as a pastor, but the decision to study theology was my own,” she told the audience of locals and international visitors. The Rev. Sani Ibrahim Azar, now the bishop of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, stood beaming beside her at this happy event.

The ordination of a woman in the Arab Lutheran Church completes a push begun under Bishop Munib Younan, the elder Azar’s predecessor, who heralded back in 2006 the transformation of the church in regard to gender. Though the church is small in numbers, the Lutheran Church’s equality policy has already opened doors for women beyond Azar’s ordination. It has meant that, unlike for other Christian families throughout the Middle East, men and women receive an equal share in inheritance and have equality in all personal status issues.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, as in Jordan and other majority-Muslim countries, when a person dies, whether Muslim or Christian, the inheritance by law is divided with males getting twice the portion allotted to females. If a family has no male children, the uncles get a big cut of the inheritance.

Christian Arab activists in Jordan have been working hard with some progressive church leaders to ensure that inheritance is equally distributed, but they face an uphill battle. Among the biggest opponents of the change are Christian members of Jordan’s Parliament. Omar Naber, a progressive MP, told me that out of nine fellow Christians in Parliament, six are opposed to the change and want the existing order based on Islamic law to continue to apply instead.

Nor are equality issues limited to inheritance. All personal status issues in the Middle East (including Israel and the Palestinian territories) are regulated by religious entities. Church ecclesiastical courts apply their own canon laws that are very much biased toward men. Women get peanuts when they are divorced. They are not considered entitled to any part of their husband’s wealth, although courts grant them a measly alimony that barely covers an ex-wife’s actual needs, after pouring her time and money into her married years.

It should be no surprise, then, that despite the Rev. Sally Azar’s breakthrough, it will be some time before she heads her own congregation. Her first assignment has been to pastor foreign Christians as well as school and youth ministries in Jerusalem.

But Azar’s ordination is a milestone, nonetheless. In his sermon, her father, Bishop Azar, was pleased that the gender equality that their church had been preaching about had been fulfilled. 

He gave plenty of advice to the new pastor, reminding her to “trust the Lord” and not to lean on her own understanding. He also noted that the ordination of a young Arab woman opened the gate for girls to think of being a pastor and to find a church that will allow them to follow a calling to become a pastor.

(Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian Christian journalist from Jerusalem, is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter@daoudkuttab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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