Jordan a Refuge in the Desert: One of the Middle East's Most Stable Countries Offers Tolerance, History, and Struggle-Especially for Christians

Article excerpt

Jordan is stuck in one rough neighborhood. With next-door neighbors like Iraq, Israel, and the West Bank, the country is accustomed to nearby discord and disruption. Despite each incident and tension over at the neighbors', Jordan somehow manages to hang onto its status as one of the few stable, secure places in the Middle East.

That status is tenuous, though. In the months before the American-led attack on Iraq, uncertainty seemed to permeate Jordanian air: How would everything hold together as a wave of anticipated Iraqi refugees cross its border?

Today, more than 4.6 million people--many who are former refugees themselves--call the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan home. Their country is one of 58 Islamic states worldwide, and about 92 percent of Jordanians are Sunni Muslims. But roughly 4 to 6 percent of Jordanians are Christian.

Regardless of religious differences and the state of the region, Jordanians are quick to share with visitors three key facts about their country: that Jordan's doors are open to all; that the "Jordanian family" includes both Christian and Muslim members; and that even though Jordan is now a Muslim state, it's also the cradle of Christianity.

The waves of people seeking shelter during the last 55 years alone have stretched Jordan's resources thin and left its doormat worn.

During the Intifada of the last few years, thousands of Palestinian refugees have entered Jordan's western border. During the Gulf War the country hosted more than a million refugees, the government reported--almost a third of Jordan's entire population at the time--and about 300,000 remained after the war.

In the 1970s and '80s, Lebanese fled to Jordan to escape their country's civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians came during the war-torn years of 1948 and 1967. And before and after these major onslaughts, a steady flow of people continued to come to Jordan in search of safe haven.

A majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent, and perhaps 40 to 50 percent "feel Palestinian," says author and journalist Rami Khouri, who met with a group of American Catholic journalists as they embarked on a visit to his home country. But while many live in Palestinian refugee camps, the country has a unique policy of granting full citizenship to any Palestinian who seeks it, and most have become "mainstream" Jordanians living among the native residents.

Others come from more far-off locales. More than 8,000 Filipinos live in the kingdom, mostly young women who are employed in Jordanian households. Thousands more come from Sri Lanka and India.

But as Jordan opens its doors to immigrants, many Jordanians themselves are emigrating.

"The problems facing Jordanians are mainly economic," says Ra'ed Bahou, the regional director for Jordan and Iraq for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. A papal agency that offers humanitarian and pastoral support, CNEWA in Jordan focuses primarily on health care and educational programs.

But some Jordanians also face problems of a more religious nature. And with such a small percentage of Christians in the country, this emigration is taking a greater toll on the Christian community.

A small group with a big job

Less than 50 years ago, Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop George al-Murr estimates, 10 percent of Jordan's population was Christian. Now, because of emigration: a low birth rate among Christians, and a large number of Muslim immigrants, that number has dwindled to its lowest level. "Sooner or later," al-Murr says, "this will be a holy land without a holy people."

Of Jordan's Christian population, most belong to Greek Orthodox churches. Smaller numbers of Roman Catholics, Eastern rite Catholics, and members of other Orthodox churches also live in Jordan, as do a smattering of mainline Protestants.

"Our culture is a mosaic culture," says Fakhry Abu Shakra, executive director of the World Affairs Council in Amman. …