Pope offers message of hope

BY BRIAN LOWNEY, Acting Editor

AMMAN, JORDAN — Pope Benedict XVI urged Middle Eastern Christians assembled from several nations Sunday to remain steadfast in their faith despite hardships threatening their ancient communities as more than 20,000 people filled a Jordanian sports stadium where the pontiff celebrated the first open-air Mass of his Holy Land pilgrimage.

The Latin rite patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, who noted that Jordan has taken more than 1,000,000 Iraqi refugees since the beginning of the ongoing conflict, including 40,000 Christians, welcomed the pope.

“The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect the people of the Middle East,” Pope Benedict said, speaking in English at the Mass.

“May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world,” he said.

In his homily Sunday, Pope Benedict said he hoped Christians would always get the “material and moral assistance” they need.

During my trip to Jordan last November, I visited the Jordan Community Center for Refugees and Migrant Workers in Amman. The center is operated by Caritas Jordan, with partial funding from Catholic Relief Services, and provides food, nonperishable household supplies, and medical care for less fortunate Jordanians and many Iraqi refugees, regardless of religious affiliation.

A medical clinic offers laboratory tests and medications and makes referrals for surgical procedures and obstetric care at a nearby hospital conducted by the Camboni Sisters, an Italian religious order.

Dr. Hannan Jarrar, director of the clinic, noted that many Iraqis suffer from hypertension and diabetes as a result of stress they suffered during the war and resettlement in a new country.

“We aim at raising awareness among Iraqis on certain issues such as chronic diseases, HIV-AIDS and breast cancer through the lectures we present, “ said Hania Bisharat, project officer for the community center.

Bisharat added that the center also helps a large number of female domestic workers, many of whom came to Jordan from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines seeking work as maids or nannies. Once hired, these women worked long hours for little pay and were sometimes physically abused by their employers.

Caritas also helps with tuition costs for several Iraqi children who attend private schools. Tuition at a Catholic school in Amman costs $750 per year.

According to Bisharat, the only way the refugee children will escape poverty is through an education.

“It’s important to keep Iraqi refugee kids in school,” she emphasized. “Many of them missed some school when their families were fleeing Iraq. We want to make sure they get back into a school routine.”

At the Greek Melkite Catholic School, I visited several classrooms where Iraqi refugee children were studying with their Jordanian peers.

A group of enthusiastic third graders sitting at individual computers were eagerly creating snowmen with a software program, while a classroom filled with attentive high school juniors copied notes in a physics class taught by a teacher dressed in traditional clothing worn by Muslim women in public.

Bisharat emphasized that education is one of the main priorities of King Abdullah, Jordan’s reigning monarch. Jordan, a country slightly smaller in size than Indiana, has 19 universities and almost 50 community colleges.

Later that day, I visited the home of an Iraqi refugee family who receive assistance from Caritas Jordan and other Christian agencies that provide assistance to the less fortunate and refugees living in Jordan.

The family lives on the second floor of an old stone tenement building located in a crowded neighborhood. A windowless sitting area was decorated with mismatched furniture and a collection of well-worn stuffed Santa Clauses.

Bisharat explained that when a refugee family emigrates to the United States or to another country, it’s customary to offer furniture, carpeting, household goods and toys to those left behind.

The family slept in one large bed, used a latrine to wash and go to the bathroom, and relied on bottled water that they purchased with funds provided by one of many Christian relief organizations that serve the poor and refugees in Jordan.

One of the most unforgettable experiences of my trip occurred during that visit when the oldest son, a 10 year-old boy, quietly left the room and returned carrying a small metal tray with cups of cold water for the guests and his father. This simple act of kindness was typical of the warm hospitality sincerely offered by the Jordanian people — Muslim and Christians alike — during my visit to this emerging Middle Eastern country.

Throughout his visit to Jordan, the pope expressed his “deep respect” for Islam and hoped that the Catholic Church would be a force in restoring peace to the Middle East.

Father Nabil Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, said that the tenets of Islam implore Muslims to live in peace.

“Christian groups are not judged based on the extremists within the religion,” he said. “Muslims, too, should not be judged for the actions of a few. The Muslim extremists take portions of the Quran and twist them around to fit their own needs and people in the West need to learn not to judge the majority for the actions of a select few.”