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ELCA leader meets people working for peace in Middle East

WILLMAR -- Many people who visit Israel want to see the Church of the Nativity, the Tombs of the Patriarchs or the Temple Mount, says a Lutheran Church leader who recently traveled for the first time to Israel.

"That is what is in our imagination as most important,'' says the Rev. Jon V. Anderson, bishop of Southwestern Minnesota Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Anderson says those "holy stones'' help Christians better understand the Bible and their religious tradition.

But Anderson was more deeply moved by the "living stones" -- Jewish people living in Israel and Palestinians who are working together to end conflict and promote peace in the Middle East.

"I was impressed by the courage and faith of the people who I encountered,'' Anderson said. "It's been hard there, and yet they keep working.''

Anderson, who was born in Glenwood and grew up in Belgrade, reflected on his trip to Israel and Palestine in a speech Thursday entitled "Holy Stones and Living Stones'' during the 26th annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast at the Willmar Conference Center.

He was among 70 people -- mostly bishops from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and ELC in Canada -- who spent their annual continuing education event in Israel. The trip was planned a couple of years ago and took place during the Israeli-Hamas conflict.

Anderson showed pictures Thursday of historic sites, and pictures of children who told Anderson they aren't terrorists, and adults working for peace.

In an interview, Anderson said he was frightened by news reports of hostilities.

"It's hard to believe that a country can be so segmented that full-blown war can be happening 40 miles from us and I only saw one military vehicle the whole eight days I was there,'' he said.

The group toured Jerusalem, drove down to the Dead Sea and visited the fortress at Mosada, and also traveled to Ramallah, Bethlehem, and to Hebron, where Anderson said he felt the most nervous. He saw "incredible poverty'' as they drove through villages to the central city.

As the group walked back to the bus after visiting the Tombs of the Patriarchs, the guide said there had been a riot and shooting nearby the day before.

"You could feel the tension there. I went there mostly afraid, and over time I came to realize that maybe that's a problem I have, that we look at Palestinian people mostly with fearful eyes,'' said Anderson.

Anderson said the problems in the Middle East are complex and deep.

"But what I came to understand as I prepared to go ... I began to hear voices inside the Israeli community that are uncomfortable with current policies, and most importantly began to hear the Palestinian side of their story.''

Anderson said he met Israelis and Palestinians who meet regularly to talk and dream about a better future. One of their projects was a blood drive. The Israelis gave blood on their side, the Palestinians gave blood on their side, and they shipped the blood across the border.

Then they held a press conference to announce what they'd done. Their response to those who decried giving blood to the enemy was that the blood drive was easier than having a family member whose blood was shed or shedding someone else's blood.

Anderson said America should continue to be supportive of Israel, but should ask Israel to keep its commitments to the Oslo Peace Accords and work for a better future.

"As we support, we need to ask for accountability about the support we're giving,'' Anderson said. "Then I think they have to figure it out on their own. We're never smart enough to figure it out over here.''