The Jordanian Difference

sayegh.jpgAuthor: Kevin Clarke
As conditions for Chaldean Catholics in Iraq deteriorate and political unrest threatens Christians in Lebanon, the Kingdom of Jordan remains a small oasis of relative calm for the Middle East’s Christian minority.

Christians here remain confident of their acceptance by the larger Muslim society as King Abdullah II remains a guarantor of their security. Muslim and Christian children go to school together and trade text messages, and the Christian community is a disproportionate force in Jordan’s parliament. The Hashemite kingdom continues to draw Christian (and Muslim) refugees escaping from Iraq.

Religious leaders from a number of different Christian traditions—Melkite Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Latin rite Catholics—attribute the difference here to the intercessory role of King Abdullah, whose insistence on religious tolerance and persistent efforts to protect the status of Jordanian Christians deeply penetrates the kingdom’s psyche. In the 1940s Jordanian Christians comprised as much as 30 percent of the nation’s population, but emigration to Europe, Canada and the United States and lower birth rates compared to Muslims has significantly decreased that percentage even as the overall number of Christians increased. There are about 200,000 Christian Arabs in the nation today, about 3 percent of the Jordanian population of 6.4 million, but their influence, politically, economically and socially—the church is a trusted provider of health care and sponsor of educational institutions in Jordan—far exceeds their minority status.

Discussing the contrast in the experience of Jordanian Christians with those in other Arab states over dinner in an Amman hotel, Bishop Selim Sayegh, the Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan, explained Christians in Jordan as elsewhere in the Arab world must live under the Sharia or Islamic code of justice. “The Islamic Sharia is the same in all the Muslim world,” Bishop Sayegh said, “but those who apply it are moderate or not.” The encounter with Islam is completely different in Jordan, he said, then what many Americans might expect. “Why? Because the government is moderate and trying always to give a good balance.” He said Christians and Muslims in Jordan share a deep relationship. They practice the “dialogue of daily life” lived together. “There are thousands of Muslim children in our schools,” Bishop Sayegh said. “They grow with our children. It is normal for them to live with Christians; it is not a difficulty.”

Commenting on the recent controversies in the United States, Bishop Sayegh said many Americans had a perhaps superficial understanding of Islam and the issues of concern to Muslims. He said if Americans want to understand the currents roiling contemporary Islam, they need to “go back” and research the political and historic reasons for them.

The minority status of Muslims in Europe and America might also account for some of the emerging tensions between the two cultures that are not evident in Jordan. “When they are here, they are the majority. They have everything; they can give the rule they want,” Bishop Sayegh said. “But when they are in Europe, in America, they are a minority, with the spirit of minority, that means they want to defend, like us Christian people here. To defend, this is the psychological mentality of the minority generally and that’s why they have another speech there…. It is not the same one here.”

Commenting on the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Bishop Sayegh said many Jordanians were generally optimistic about the current dialogue’s prospects for success. “Because they think that now they are dealing face to face that means for many of our people, something is already done.” The revived talks, he speculated, could be a means of preparing the Arab community for a settlement.

“All of us we want peace, [but] peace without some justice is impossible, justice for the Palestinian people, he said. “If they want peace, peace will be possible…. Israelis can’t get everything they want, the Palestinian people can’t get everything they want.” And in the middle the United States has a profound role to play, Bishop Sayegh said. “America is the strongest country in the world. They have all the means to oblige the two parties to make peace. The Palestinian people and Israeli people are very tired of this situation. They want peace.” And what would peace between Israelis and Palestinians mean for the region’s Christians. “There is a very big question mark,” he said with a hearty laugh.