Christianity in Jordan Briefing presented by Fr. Rifa’t Bader Jordan Tourism Board, North America Religious press Familiarization Trip of Biblical Jordan, May 20-27, 2001

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Just days before the Pope’s pilgrimage visit to the Holy Land, “Famiglia Cristiana” had an interview with H. M. King Abdullah the 2d, and one of the interesting questions was: What’s the situation of Catholics in Jordan? The reply was: “The Catholics, and the Christians in general, form an important part of our society and they are very respected. They participate in all the political, economic and social aspects of the country, assume senior positions and roles in the government and society at large, and play an active role in parliament as both voters and members of parliament. They are free to practice their faith and beliefs, without any obstacles from anyone, and freely build their churches. Jordanian Christians have always received our appreciation. This is one of the things we are proud of in Jordan: we feel that the mutual respect and understanding among Christians and Muslims in Jordan is a fine model for the world. Some years ago Pope Paul VI chose our country to be the place for his historical meeting with the Patriarch Athenagore because of the neutrality of Jordan.” (FC n. 11 19march 2000).

“The Catholic Church, without forgetting that its primary mission is a spiritual one, is always eager to cooperate with individual nations and people of goodwill in promoting the dignity of humankind. The church does this in particular through its schools and education programs, and through charitable and social institutions. Your noble tradition of respect for all religions guarantees the religious freedom which makes this possible, and which is in fact a fundamental human right. When this is so, all citizens feel themselves equal, and each one, inspired by his own spiritual convictions, can contribute to the building up of society as the shared home of all”. (John Paul II in Jordan, at the international Airport 20\3\2000).

Jordanian Christian Identity:

Without any doubt, Christ Himself passed through Jordan during his preaching and teaching in the Decapolis (Jerash, Philadelphia, Gedara…). The first Christian Community to flee Jerusalem during the first Jewish revolt found refuge at Pella in the north Jordan Valley.

The great patrimony of archeological and Biblical sites in Jordan is very strong testimony to the Christian Identity here since the earliest days of Christianity. In fact, the church in Jordan and Palestine is the Mother-Church. Bishop Selim Sayegh, residing in Amman, has written a small book about the Christian archeological sites in Jordan, noting that in every step in this land you can find plenty of history. Many Bishops from Jordan participated at the first Councils of the Church in the fourth to sixth centuries AD, and inn many sites around the country you find inscribed the words: “This people loves Christ”. Despite the harsh persecutions of Christians during the first 3 centuries (we have many martyrs in Jordan), the Church subsequently prospered and expanded from the 4th to the 7th century. Then following the Persian and the Arab Moslem conquests of the 7th century, the Church was gradually weakened. The Christian community became smaller, and a minority, and has remained so over the centuries, including today. The old Arab Christian literature, though, is one of the jewels of Arab history and culture:

Latin Patriarchate:

Diocese of Jerusalem. From the 5th century, dependent from Antioch with the Bishop of Jerusalem Jovinalus, during the Clacedian Council. The crusaders designed a Latin patriarch in 1099 till 1291.Having been restored in 1847, Patriarch Valerga was the first one elected by Pope Pie IX. The Actual Patriarch is the 8th, HB Michel Sabbah, is the first Arab patriarch. 2 Vicariates are to be mentioned: in Amman and Nazareth. In Amman since 1927. The local clergy has to pass by the Latin Seminary in Beit Jala.

Actual situation of Christians in Jordan:

Before the 2d World War, estimated number is 25, 000 persons. From 455,000 (5%). In the 1960s, 160,000 from 1.7 million (9%). But due to large numbers of refugees arriving from Palestine, this number has decreased to less than 3% today, and is not more than 180,000 persons.

The Christians in Jordan are:

1) Traditional, who follow the tribal, village, and Bedouin customs and popular traditions.

2) From an ecumenical viewpoint, every Christian follows his denomination. We have a council of Bishops working in Jordan, but achieving full unity in the Church remains a big challenge and hope.

3) The Christian is a good citizen, and being an Arab Christian is not a weak aspect of our lives. Our Arab landscape and society is our fate and also our salvation. We are very conscious of the fact that we Christians in the Holy Land continue the tradition of human morality, identity and faith that started with the baptism, teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which happened in our area.

The Christian in Jordan is always a good citizen, very faithful to his or her country, work, family, and society… always helpful. In the parliament 8 of 80 deputies are Christians. Always we have one or two ministers in the government and 2 in the economic consultative council… We are deeply rooted in the ancient history of the land and in the modern institutions of statehood and society. We are not looking for another space in the world where we can live our faith; The Incarnation of the Lord is our strategy to incarnate our faith in the society of today, in the Arab society or the western one…I should mention some initiatives related to the Church’s work in society (hospitals, Caritas …), in order to try to resolve the problem of unemployment (16 %) and poverty (27% persons = 65,000 families) but the problem remains much bigger than our possibilities and modest means.

4) The church in the world of culture:

Many schools in Jordan and Palestine are run by the Catholic Church and other churches (the Roman Catholic Patriarchate runs 43 schools with 19,000 students of whom two-thirds are Christians). Our dream is greater than our possibilities. The Patriarchate is always supported by the Knights and Ladies (Order) of the Holy Sepulcher. Our families can’t pay for all the expenses of education. So the schools are PASTORAL and not at all COMMERCIAL, above all, good catechism is always presented in these schools. We have many other educational institutions for adults, and we still dream to have a Catholic university in our country. Many writers and newspaper columnists (the most read) are Christians.

5) The mass media tools in the church and Christian information:

The laymen and women are not able to promote such means within the church. The church has 2 modest monthly magazines. No possibilities in the TV or radio except for some personal initiatives from some determined priests, with some other writers who affirm their Christian values. Our dream and hope here is to open an official Christian information center, like the one in Jerusalem. We are in great need of such a center of mass media and many priests are working to open it, but we are still far from succeeding.

6) Inter-religious dialogue:

Christian-Muslim dialogue is well rooted in Jordan, and much more dynamic than in many other Arab countries, in part because of the patronage of the royal family. Several official institutions have been established for this purpose, such as the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, the Aal Al-Bayt University focuses on interfaith and cultural research. However, the dialogue is still largely at the official and formal level, and has not yet reached the street level, where some dogmatic and rigid views are in need of deeper dialogue in order to eliminate misunderstandings or misperceptions. The good relationship between neighbors (Christians and Moslems) is a distinctive and positive aspect of Jordanian society.

7) Toward a better future:

Fears: Economic Hardship: is affecting everyone. Besides this common difficult situation, the “minority” is sometimes feeling desperate. There is the danger of self-marginalisation, negligence of the faith, fusion… that means forgetting the specific faith in order to have a good place in society. Here we can talk about the remedy initiatives and first of all it’s the negative one in emigration which is not at all a result of any act “of persecution”. This is not at all present but because of the degradation of material income for both families and individuals. It’s a danger for both Christian and Moslem, but because of the small number of Christians the symptoms are worse for Christians. In fact, the phenomenon of emigration has reduced the number of Christians in the Holy Land to a fraction of what they were in years past. However, few of us share the opinion of some pessimists who say that the Christian community of Palestine is disappearing. The Holy Land still has a vibrant Christian Palestinian and Jordanian community.

The Christian Community in Palestine has reduced and most of them emigrated outside, not always by their own chance, because of the bad and increasing situation of violence. The Church, especially with HB Patriarch Michel Sabbah who is always calling for an end to the circle of violence and He calls his con-citizens, Christians and Muslims alike, to remain in their homeland where they have their roots. Just a just peace can put the serenity in both people: Palestinian and Israeli. (for more information about the role of the Local Church in the situation in the Holy Land, please have a look on http://go.to/nonviolence whose editor is Fr Raed Abusahlia, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate, Jerusalem, and pass it to your friends).

For the first time, the believers from the Middle East living abroad are more than those who are still in their countries. The greatest fear is that they may forget any connection with their homeland.

Fr Rafiq Khoury, a leading man of culture in the Patriarchate, is always talking about “choices” for our Arab Christian communities. There are 4 principles to keep in mind:

1) Choice of faith especially in the cross and Resurrection of Christ but also of Christianity.
2) Ecclesial Choice: to get involved in the Church’s spiritual and pastoral life.
3) Ecumenical Choice: to be Christians together in the face of many challenges.
4) Social choice: to be involved in all the aspects of our society.

8) Pastoral Plan:
After the closure of the Diocesan Pastoral Synod (1995-2000), the resulting Pastoral Plan is the Hope for our Christians to be always awakened and looking to a better future. Being an Arab Christian remains a demanding life and a challenge, almost a Via Dolorosa; but also it’s the road toward salvation. We are still the proud, direct sons of the first Christian community, and we will always be faithful to this Mission, by being honest and trustworthy in our society and in our church.

Conclusion:
The Church of the Holy Land has a special vocation and mission (ref. Fr William Shomali, general director of Finance Committee in the Latin Patriarchate, from a Lecture in London for the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulcher 2000).

1) Our vocation is to remain, despite our small numbers, in the Holy Land, where Jesus was baptized, preached, redeemed humanity, and founded the Church.
2) Our mission is to be witnesses of Jesus Christ amidst a Moslem majority. This involves an important interfaith dimension. We have many things in common with our Muslim compatriots, including language, history, and destiny. This richness of the Arab Christian community living in the Holy Land qualifies us to be a bridge between Oriental and the Occidental cultures, without negating our origins and identity as Arabs, Jordanians and Christians.

Fr Rif’at Bader rifatb@hotmail.com
Smakieh 22\5\2001