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Jordan’s Christian Shepherds

Can technology preserve an ancient way of life?

text by Dale Gavlak with photographs by Nader Daoud

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Young and old crowd the wooden pews of a village church in the south of Jordan one recent Sunday evening. The congregation waits with eager anticipation to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the Rev. Boulos Baqa’in, 56, an energetic priest closely connected to his flock.

Some of the elders proudly don their traditional white robe-like garb with matching head covering, or keffiyeh, topped by a thin black cord — a symbol of their Bedouin roots. The youth wear jeans and sneakers.

Despite differences in age and dress, the Christians of Ader’s St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church all agree on this: Their most pressing need is jobs for their youth. As local employment opportunities dry up, their university graduates look elsewhere for work, a factor endangering the future of the area’s rich Christian heritage.

“It was very difficult for my parents to see me go,” says 24-year-old Malik Hijazine, a member of the church who now works at a Christian school in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

“We discussed the situation together and I helped them with things in the house, so when I traveled the situation lightened,” he says.

Mr. Hijazine has returned to Ader for a week to help supervise a summer youth camp held at the church.

“It helps that I have a brother here for the moment, but my other brother and sister live and work in Aqaba, even farther south,” he says, with concern evident in his voice.

“Our area is economically depressed. There is nothing for the youth to look forward to here in terms of developments,” the young man explains. “Finding good employment is difficult, so you are forced to go to the capital to get work — or to Jordan’s sole port city of Aqaba.”

Others travel even farther away, often to the Arab Gulf countries, in search of jobs.

Mr. Hijazine hails from a prominent Christian Bedouin tribe that originated from the Hijaz, a region found in present-day western Saudi Arabia. The Hijazine have existed as a Christian tribe with an unbroken lineage originating long before the advent of Islam in the seventh century. Over time they moved northward, first to Jordan’s ancient rose-red city of Petra and then to the area around the city of Kerak, home to one of the largest Crusader castles in the Middle East.

“Many Catholic priests have come from the Hijazine family, at least 16 and many sisters over the last several decades,” says Ra’ed Bahou, regional director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in Amman. Ader and other nearby villages not far from Kerak, he says, have supplied the bulk of Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox priests and religious for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Most Jordanian Bedouin are Muslim. Past economic and social pressures encouraged large numbers to embrace Islam, especially after the tenth century. Yet, as with the Hijazine, there remain Jordanian tribes such as the Akasheh, Halaseh, and Baqa’in who have clung to their Christian faith throughout the centuries. Christians and Muslims live together in Kerak, and the surrounding villages of Ader and Raba. But the nearby hamlets of Smakieh and Hmoud are believed to be the last remaining Christian villages in Jordan.

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