Magazine article The Christian Century

Minority Report

Magazine article The Christian Century

Minority Report

Article excerpt

AT THE TOP OF the short list of Western-friendly Arab nations is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This relatively modern Muslim country, led by the articulate, handsome King Abdullah, is officially at peace with Israel. Jordan is bent on stopping terrorism within and outside its borders while generally maintaining respect for civil liberties. It has a cosmopolitan capital, Amman. Though a monarchy, the nation has a pinch of democracy (however, its elected parliament has little real power).

The country includes some fabulous sites: ancient ruins like Petra (featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), natural wonders like the Dead Sea, the Red Sea and the Wadi Rum desert region (which Lawrence of Arabia famously called "vast, echoing, godlike"), and significant places in biblical history. Um-Qais is said to be the site where Jesus sent a legion of demons into a herd of swine. From Mount Nebo one can behold the Promised Land, as Moses once did, and can even see Jerusalem on a clear day. Jordan also claims to have the real site of Jesus' baptism. Though two sites in Israel make the same claim, there is strong Byzantine-era evidence for Jordan's claim. And Jordan is eager to get its share of the Holy Land tourist dollar.

Jordan's indigenous Arab Christians trace their history to Pentecost, when "Arabs" were among those who heard preaching in their own language (Acts 2:11). But the Maronite, Coptic, Latin Rite, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Arab Latin churches are all struggling; none has enough priests to serve even its dwindling flock. The birth rate among Christians is lower than that of their Muslim neighbors, and many with the means to do so have left for economic opportunities in the West.

Recognizing that at this rate the country would eventually have no Christians left, the Jordanian government in 1994 began the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies to document and encourage Arab Christian culture. RIIFS deputy director Baker al-Hiyari worries that "multicultural participation could be threatened" in Jordan and says, "We don't want our society to have only one color." He laments that while as a child he had some 20 Christian friends, now he counts only six or seven. He gives the standard figure--that Christians constitute 5 percent of Jordan's population. Others insist that that figure is too high and is maintained mostly for political purposes. The real figure may be more like 2 or 3 percent.

To test the country's openness to Christianity, I suggest to al-Hiyari that the country might open its doors to Western evangelical missionaries. He looks displeased. "We don't want to bring in new colors--we want the colors we grew up with." He explains that the Prophet Muhammad made clear that Islam is the last block in the building. Al-Hiyari uses another analogy for computer-savvy Westerners: "If you have updated from a 1.0 or 2.0 operating system to 3.0, why would you want to go back?" The policy of RIIFS and the Jordanian government is not to encourage non-Muslims to proliferate; it is, in fact, to encourage them to "update"--that is, to become Muslim (despite al-Hiyari's seeming affirmation of multiculturalism).

As with most Muslim countries, Jordan's legal system is based on Shari'a law. It is technically illegal to convert to Christianity from Islam. Groups that would seek to convert people to Christianity are naturally suspect. The traditional churches in Jordan--the ancient ones mentioned above plus Lutheran and Anglican communities--do not proselytize, according to al-Hiyari. Some of the most adamant supporters of this nonproselytizing policy are the traditional Christian communities themselves. Al-Hiyari explained the reason for their antagonism to proselytizing Western evangelicals: "If [evangelicals] target 1,000 Muslims ... they might get five converts. If they target 1,000 Jordanian Christians, they'll get 20."

Al-Hiyari is also made uneasy by the strict Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam, which dominates much of Saudi Arabia, and whose most famous adherent is Osama bin-Laden. …

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