Palestinian Lutheran bishop accepts peace award

Lindsay Steele
Bishop Munib Younan, left, accepts the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award from Bishop Thomas Zinkula Sept. 24 in Rock Island, Ill.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Peace and justice depend on respect for the human rights and human dignity of all people. “It is imperative that all religions teach their adherents to see the Image of God in those who are different,” said Bishop Munib Younan, a Lutheran church leader and Palestinian.

He delivered that message during his passionate acceptance speech at the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award ceremony Sept. 24 in Rock Island, Ill. The Pacem in Terris Coalition, led by the Diocese of Davenport, chose Bishop Younan as the 49th recipient of the award for his vision and commitment to human rights, world peace and the nonviolent resolution of conflict. Past honorees include the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Your leadership in promoting respect for the dignity and culture of the people in the Holy Land and people all around the world reminds us that peace can overcome injustice,” said Bishop Thomas Zinkula. “You truly embody the words of Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris as a ‘spark of light, a center of love, a vivifying leaven’ to your brothers and sisters around the world.”


Bishop Younan expressed humility and gratitude in accepting the award in Ascension Chapel at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., across the Mississippi River from Davenport. Recipients usually receive the award at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, but Augustana College, with its deep roots in the Lutheran Church was a fitting venue for Bishop Younan, award organizers said.

Secure human rights for all

Throughout his life, Bishop Younan has worked closely with Christians, Jews and Muslims to foster dialogue and understanding. Three years ago, as president of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop Younan signed a joint statement with Pope Francis promoting Christian unity. Last year, he received a “Building Bridges of Understanding” award at Georgetown University for his life’s work in fostering greater understanding between faith groups.

“It is no longer sufficient to insist on human rights only for one nation, for one people, for one religion,” Bishop Younan said in his Pacem award speech. “Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: ‘The church is the guardian of the State. The church is the conscience of the State.’ If this is so, then the church and all its members are called to secure the human rights of all of us, as we are all made in the image of God.” The interfaith audience applauded.

Bishop Younan, 69, wove the 1963 papal encyclical of St. John XXIII into his talk, describing it as the “Magna Carta of Catholic engagements in human rights.” The bishop identified two significant theological ideas that he gleaned from the encyclical. “First: Peace is dependent on respect for human dignity and human rights.” Every human being is created equally in the image of God, the bishop said. “For Pope John XXIII, this is the basis of a new world order built upon four pillars: Truth, Justice, Love, and Freedom.”

The bishop’s second theological insight comes from the encyclical’s linking of the modern movement of human rights to the church’s central mission. “This means the Church as a whole is called to carry the Gospel of love and dignity into the public sphere.… It is the primary role of the Church not only to speak on the rights and concerns of Christians, but to lift up the necessity of human rights for all people. We must understand human rights to be both individual and communal.”

Bishop Younan advocated for a “nuclear-free world and gun-free states,” calling on world leaders to take immediate steps toward disarmament of all weapons of destruction. “The fear of the Other is the source of all conflict, violence, greed, extremism and war,” he said.

Politicians and groups are using this fear to “create an atmosphere of mistrust among peoples and nations,” which has infected the world with secular populism and racism, he said. “The Church can counteract this disease by inoculating our youth and elected leaders with the Gospel of love.”

Striving for a truly Holy Land

Born in Jerusalem in 1950 to Palestinian refugees, Bishop Younan continues to promote and believe in a two-state solution, “with Israel and Palestine living side by side based on the 1967 borders, in peace, justice, equity and reconciliation. I continue to promote and insist upon a Jerusalem that is shared between the three religions that call it holy — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — and that it must be a shared capital for both Israel and Palestine.”

He vowed that as long as he lives, “I will continue to teach my children and grandchildren to see the Image of God in Israelis and I pray my Israeli neighbors will see the Image of God in us as Palestinians…. Then we can mutually recognize the human, political, civil, and religious rights of the Other. Only then can the Holy Land become truly holy, a home for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Bishop Younan “presented a challenging, heartfelt message to us about peace and justice and equality in our world,” Bishop Zinkula said after the ceremony. And Bishop Younan continues to carry out that work in retirement, Bishop Zinkula noted. During a later visit with the bishop’s staff, Bishop Younan said, “I am out of the office but never out of mission.”

The Rev. Richard Priggie, chaplain of Augustana College, was impressed that Bishop Younan, after learning about the award, chose to closely re-read the encyclical for which the award is named and connect it to his acceptance speech.

Former Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba appreciated that an internationally known Lutheran leader paid tribute to the Catholic Church’s prophetic voice on the issue of human rights. “He’s obviously in tune with Pope Francis on the issues of peace and justice and reaching out to the marginalized,” Gluba said.

“I think our speaker did a great job speaking of social justice at the nexus of faith and real issues on the ground today,” said Lisa Killinger, president of the Muslim Community of the Quad-Cities in Bettendorf. “He spoke from his heart, from his personal experiences and passion.”

One Among Us

The late Amy Rowell, director of World Relief Moline from 2010 until her death in March at age 48, was honored posthumously with the “One Among Us Justice Award” during the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award ceremony.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula presented the award to Eric Rowell for his late wife’s “efforts and humble service to meet the direct needs of the refugee community in the Quad Cities and “for her love and compassion for people in the greatest time of need.”

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