AMMAN, Jordan — A Jordanian Christian bookstore owner has said that when Christianity went to Rome, it became an institution; when it spread throughout Europe, it became a culture; in the U.S., it became a business. In the Middle East, he says, Christianity has always been about relationship.
The bonds between Christians gained strength when Islam grew in the region starting in the 7th century and have been cemented in the past few years as ISIS extremists in surrounding nations have targeted and expelled the followers of Jesus.
“Nothing in Jordan is here without a base of Christianity,” says Daoud Sa'maan, a resident of the largely Christian town of Fuheis. Sa'maan’s grandfather played a role in bringing Roman Catholicism to Jordan, which also has Catholic Melkites and many Orthodox Christians.
Where Jesus walked
Jordan, east of Israel, is a land where Jesus was baptized. He walked, taught and performed miracles here. The Decapolis, where he began his final journey toward Jerusalem, is mostly in Jordan. John the Baptist, who lived and ministered here and was beheaded in a palace overlooking the Dead Sea, is patron saint of the country.
Jordan is home to some of the oldest Christian communities on the planet. The ruins of Byzantine-era churches and monasteries cover it, with many covered over by mosques.
Jordanian Christians number about 400,000 or 6 percent of the population. Of those, most are Orthodox. Catholics of various rites add up to about 70,000 and Protestants number about 30,000.
But after decades of Christian flight, Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria have been welcomed by the tens of thousands, aided both by the Muslim government and Christian churches.
The royal family of Jordan, while it claims to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad, has long been open to Christians, who can display crosses and build churches with little fear. King Abdullah II, western educated and friendly to the west, has close advisors who are Christian. Christians own a disproportionate number of Jordanian businesses and run many banks.
“Jordan will be the last safe have for Christians in the Middle East,” says Archimandrite Innokentios, an Orthodox Christian leader in Madaba, a center of Christian culture in the Byzantine era.
“Jordan is a garden in a desert,” says Ra’Ed Bahou, regional director of the Pontifical Mission, a papal agency for relief and development in the Middle East. “The Middle East is losing Christians; Jordan is absorbing Christians.”
Bahou says he does fear extremists in neighboring Syria and Iraq, but for now considers Jordan “very safe.” He proposes a strategy to keep Christianity and Jordan thriving: encourage religious pilgrimages.
“About half of what happened in the Bible took place in what is now Jordan,” says Christine Moore, a U.S. representative for the Jordan Tourism Board.
The Greek Orthodox Church controls about 65 percent of Jordan’s Judeo-Christian holy sites, while the Franciscans and others are custodians of the rest. The Franciscans tend Mount Nebo, the site where Moses is thought to have died. A new church is under construction on the mountaintop. It will incorporate ancient mosaics found on the site.
Petra, Jordan’s most famous attraction, predates Christianity. But Christians moved into the sandstone city during the Byzantine era and Crusaders took refuge there. The language Jesus spoke, Aramaic, emerged from Petra’s founders, the Nabataeans.
In addition to Christian sites, this is the land where Elijiah was born and taken to heaven, where Moses died on a mountaintop and where God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Four popes have visited here, including Pope Francis in 2014.
Rustom Mkhjian, who oversees archeology at the baptism site of Jesus, calls it one of the holiest sites in Christianity, holier than everything at the Vatican. Across the Jordan at night, the lights of Jerusalem twinkle.
“This is an integral part of the Holy Land,” says Mkhjian, who has worked to keep the “Wilderness of John the Baptist” in a natural state, as Jesus and John would have experienced it.
Church leaders here say the biblical sites are important, but that what is really important in Jordan are “the living stones.”
At St. George Parish in Fuheis, the liturgy runs according to the Melkite rite, which predominates in Catholicism here. It’s one of more than 20 eastern Christian traditions that have retained their ancient way of prayer while professing allegiance to the pope. Maronites, who have a parish in Portland, are another such rite.
Melikites use a poetic, mystical liturgy written by Syrian-born St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century.
The language at St. George in Fuheis is Arabic. Icons, incense and bells are frequent. Refugees from Iraq and Syria join the Jordanians, singing in a full-throated way, with tears welling up. They have endured pain.
“The whole world is a small village. We want everyone to know our problem,” says Hazam, a 56-year-old Christian from Nineveh. ISIS expelled Hazam and tens of thousands of others from the ancient city in northern Iraq.
At Sts. Peter and Paul Old Cathedral in Amman, Melkite Catholics gather for Sunday Mass on what for Muslims is the first day of the work week. This is the spiritual home of about 400 families.
As Father Nabil Haddad reads the gospel, the large gilded book rests on the head of an assistant. When parents approach for Communion with children in tow, Father Haddad rests the chalice on the youngsters’ heads for a moment as a blessing. As the eucharistic prayer is about to begin, several women break from the congregation to venerate icons near the altar. They touch the holy pictures and then make a gesture of washing their faces, as if to say they are washing themselves clean with holiness.
Father Haddad, who is married as are many eastern rite clergy, holds a crucifix as a gives the homily. He explains that a local Muslim writer explained that Christianity is the opposite of chess. In chess, all defend the king. In Christianity, the King defends all.
“This is the way we should look at ourselves as the church,” the priest said. “We must learn this sacrifice of love. We want our Muslim brothers and sisters to see what our fellowship looks like.”
After liturgy at Sts. Peter and Paul, there is a table laden with baked goods and urns of strong Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom.
Mary Naber, a member of Sts. Peter and Paul, is from Salt, thought to be near the land where Job lived. One of the oldest cities in Jordan, it is home to many Christians.
“You need to understand that this was a Christian land for centuries and the Muslims came later,” Naber says. “But we and the Muslims here in Jordan have no problems. We are friends.”
Some sources say tensions between moderate and radical Islamic elements in Jordan are on the increase.
“The Crusaders have left indelible problems in our relationship with Muslims,” says Archimandrite Innokentios. “The Crusades did not bring us fame. They bring us shame.”
Here are the Muslim names for what the west calls the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War: the Fifth and Sixth Crusades. “We are losing Christians,” says Father Hugo Fabian, an Argentinian who has served in Jordan for 18 years. He is pastor of Our Lady of the Visitation Parish in Anjara, north of the capital, an area with many farm laborers.
Father Fabian says local laws and customs allow Christians to become Muslim, but make it “almost impossible” for Muslims to become Christian.
“Muslims still call Christians crusaders,” Father Fabian says. “The western nations are crusaders and against Muslims, in their view.”
Middle and lower-class Christians face no official persecution, but can be held back in business, Father Fabian says.
That said, his parish of 250 families is a hub for improved Christian-Muslim relations. The school, half Christian and half Muslim, brings both children and parents together.
Chances for harmony
Christian schools across Jordan are held in high regard. The Orthodox Christian school in Madaba educates 6,000 students, teaching the Koran to Muslims and the Bible to Christians.
“Arab Christians as a minority have a responsibility to carry on their witness,” says Father Haddad, who founded the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman. He has seen Muslim extremism increase in the region, but has worked to seize commonalities, like a desire to love God and neighbor.
“I think Christians and Muslims ought to work together,” Father Haddad says, “or at least we need to protect the silent majority of Islam to make sure they don’t go to the other side. I don’t want to see ISIS grow.”
Father Haddad said it took about three months to sooth local Muslims after Pope Benedict’s 2006 address in Regensburg, Germany quoted a Byzantine emperor being critical of Islam. The comment was taken out of context and sparked uproar in the Muslim world. The U.S. Christian pastor who burned a Koran did not help matters.
But in an act of harmony, the Pontifical Mission in Amman keeps a theological library with both Christian and Muslim texts.