• June 22, 2001
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    The Ironic Christian: Believers in Jordan Wrestle with Cultural Heritage
The Ironic Christian: Believers in Jordan Wrestle with Cultural Heritage It is a land where Jacob wrestled with an angel, Moses wandered in the wilderness and John the Baptist ministered. This section of the Holy Land, on the eastern side of the Jordan River, is rich in Old and New Testament significance ... and modern day irony.

For while the country of Jordan is steeped in Christian history, only 3 to 4 percent of its population is Christian ... and Islam serves as the officially sanctioned religion.

According to the U.S. State Department, "Jordan is modern and Western-oriented, but Islamic ideals and beliefs provide the conservative foundation of the country's customs, laws and practices."

The outward appearance of political peace in Jordan belies a subtle undercurrent of religious tension. Granted, it is calmer than most of the Middle East, as if the pot is simmering and not yet boiling, but the raw potential for friction exists.

"Jordanians suffer an identity problem," acknowledges Father Ghaleb Bader, head of the Catholic Church's ecclesiastical court in Amman. "Being Arab usually means being a Muslim, but I am a Christian Arab and proud of both."

On their government cards, Jordanian citizens must identify themselves as either a "C" for Christian or "M" for Muslim. For some, Christianity is more a cultural marker than a personal relationship. People are "born" Christian ... all Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants are "C's" by default.

Before the Pope's visit to the Holy Land in March 2000, Jordan's King Abdullah II stated: "Catholics and 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. They are free to practice their faith and beliefs, without any obstacles from anyone, and freely build their churches."

Abdullah added, "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."

But the model lacks one critical piece: the freedom of conversion. "Although the majority of Christians in Jordan are allowed to practice freely, some activities, such as proselytizing or encouraging conversion to the Christian faith -- both considered legally incompatible with Islam -- are prohibited," says the U.S. State Department.

"It is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity," the state department adds. That, however, is true of Islam in general and would apply in any other Muslim nation.

The Catholic community approaches this roadblock indirectly. "It is by our behavior that we are representatives of Christ in the Muslim community," says Father Rif'at Bader, a Catholic priest from the village of Smakieh. "Only mutual respect is possible, as conversion is not possible under Islamic law."

So the church must grow by multiplication not conversion. "To secure the continued existence of Catholicism, we must take care of our youth," says Bader. "We have no right to preach to Muslims. We can only make better Christians.

"We give testimonies by our lives," he adds, pointing out that "we were not converted from Islam. We are the grandsons of the very first Christian community."

According to Father Ghaleb Bader in Amman, Jordan suffers because of the political situation in the Middle East. "There is more Muslim oppression," he says, "but we are free in terms of practicing religion in public. The oppression is not from the government. We are fortunate to have had two good kings."


Friction within the Flock

The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest denomination in Jordan, with some 80,000 people, followed by the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant denominations bring up the rear with under 4,000 believers scattered among 60 churches. The main denominations in Jordan are Baptist, Christian Missionary Alliance, Free Evangelical Church, Assemblies of God, and Nazarene.

Evangelical-Catholic relations are problematic. Since it is illegal for Muslims to convert, many evangelicals instead seek to win people from the Catholic and Orthodox communities. Such "lateral fishing" is not welcome by the ancient churches.

In a panel discussion with evangelical leaders, Fr. Ghaleb Bader commented: "We don't need new churches in Jordan. This is a question of survival for all Christians. We'll either survive together or die together."

Fadi Sharaiha, an engineer and evangelical youth pastor from the Moab region (now Karak), pointed out Jordanians share some common problems: economic hardship, high unemployment (estimated at 27 percent) and increased emigration of young people.

Close to 60 percent of Jordan's population is under 25, says Sharaiha. "Just to make a living," he explains, "they need to work so much that they are just not interested in religion ... of any sort."

Bader referred to a survey that said 82 percent of young people would leave the country the next morning, if given the opportunity.

"Scores of Arab believers come to the United States seeking theological training," adds Dr. Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS). "Sadly, few of them return to their homelands. There are more Baptist Egyptian pastors in Los Angeles than in all of Egypt."

JETS reflects some of the paradoxes in Jordan's religious climate: it now operates with the Islamic government's permission but faced opposition from Catholic and Orthodox leaders in getting off the ground.

"Jordan is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East; yet it is situated in the midst of unrest," Shehadeh explains. "Understandably then, it is slow in its approach to new things,"

According to Shehadeh, "Although Christianity began in this region and the Church has survived the past 2000 years, tradition and ritual long ago replaced biblical doctrine and evangelism, leaving a great void -- which Islam filled."

Seeing Islam encroach on Christianity saddened Shehadeh and led him to the idea of starting a seminary. After finishing his doctorate at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1990, Shehadeh returned to his home country of Jordan with the vision of starting an inter-denominational Christian seminary strategically located in the heart of the Arab world.

Shehadeh's first challenge was to unite the five main evangelical denominations of Jordan to support this effort. In the fall of 1992, the leaders of these five denominations petitioned the Jordanian government for the registration of a Christian seminary. After three years of struggle and disappointment, JETS was officially registered in 1995.

"Now students come from across the Arab world to study," says Shehadeh. "Women and men from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Palestine come for ministry preparation."

The purpose and vision of JETS is to train and equip Arabic-speaking men and women to fulfill the Great Commission of planting and strengthening churches among their own people in the Arab world.

Says Pat Cate, president of Christar, an organization that supports Shehadeh's mission, "With all of the hurt and turmoil in the Middle East, JETS is a ray of peace, bringing a relationship with the Prince of Peace to those who are hurting.

"One of the key solutions to the Middle East crisis is God's changing hearts," Cate adds. "Graduates of JETS will specialize in the love of Christ, who changes lives from the inside out."
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