From ONE Magazine

Jordanian Christians

When Father Basheer Bader makes house calls, parishioners in the idyllic Jordanian village of Ader greet him as a family member. Village life tends to be sleepy, and lingering chats over copious cups of tea and plates of sweets nurture and strengthen relationships, tightening the bonds of community.

More than 50 miles away, in the bustling capital city of Amman, Suhair Naber finds it difficult to balance parish commitments with family responsibilities – Mrs. Naber lives a modern, suburban lifestyle all too familiar to most North Americans.

Although most locals picture Jordanian Christians as exclusively wealthy urbanites, Christians, who count up to 6 percent of Jordan’s 5.9 million residents, live throughout this kingdom’s cities, towns and villages. A diverse mix of communities in a country sandwiched between Israel/Palestine and Iraq, they play an integral part in the kingdom’s public and economic life.

“Christianity was born in our region and it is not confined to Western culture,” Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal said on the occasion of the publication of the French edition of his book, Christianity in the Arab World.

“Our Christian brothers’ defense of Arab values and the causes of the Arab world in all international fora is a truthful expression of their affiliation to their Arab patrimony.”

Only a few elderly women and young girls attended Mass on a recent Friday at St. Joseph Latin (Roman Catholic) Church in Ader, one of a cluster of villages in the Jordanian Christian heartland near the town of Kerak. Father Basheer, pastor of St. Joseph’s, explained that most of his congregation had gone to the nearby Orthodox parish to attend a funeral liturgy.

“Here, human relations and blood ties are very strong,” Father Basheer said. “Villagers are all relatives.”

Ader is an oasis of golden wheat fields in the middle of Jordan’s rocky southern desert. Herds of goats and sheep dot the gently rolling landscape. Of the village’s 4,500 inhabitants, Christians number one third of the population. Only when pressed do they identify themselves in Arabic as either “Lateen” (Latin), “Katulik” (Greek Catholic) or “Ruum” (Orthodox). Ader’s Christian community is a close one; differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy are secondary to family.

Most Christian villagers belong to Arab Christian tribes who gave up their semi-nomadic way of life in the late 19th century, settling with their herds near Kerak. According to tribal custom, these Bedouin Christians were among the first peoples to embrace Christianity after Jesus’ ascension.

The name of the village’s main Latin family, the Hijazine, points to the antiquity of their Christian faith. Originally from the Hijaz, an area near the Islamic holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, it is thought the family embraced the faith before the time of the Prophet Muhammad. (It is unthinkable that a tribe from the Islamic heartland could have converted from Islam to Christianity.)

Tribal custom still dominates village social order, sometimes to the exasperation of Father Basheer, who finds that primordial notions of “honor” often conflict with Christian teachings.

Rija’i Khoury, a mother of four who moved from Amman to the village when she married, recalled it difficult at first to adapt to the Bedouin culture, but she slowly learned the customs of the village and came to enjoy the slower pace of life. “In Amman, anything I wanted I could find,” she said. “But the spirituality of the village can’t be found in Amman.”

Of greater concern to Father Basheer is the emptying of the village of Christian youth.

“Everyone dreams of leaving Ader for Amman, or abroad,” the priest said. “We are losing the young.”

The proliferation of Christian schools in the area has stemmed the tide of Christian village-to-city migration, Father Basheer said. Education for Christian families is a priority. Yet finding more gainful employment in the city remains a draw.

The eldest daughter of Mrs. Khoury, 18-year-old Rizan, studies civil engineering at a nearby university. “Work here isn’t good,” she said. “I’m okay here for now, but in the future, I can see myself leaving.” Rizan hopes to complete a doctorate.

Rihab Hijazine, 34, who was born in Ader and is now raising a family there, has no plans to leave. “Life is easier here,” she said. “We are connected to family here. It’s here that I belong. It’s our country, our roots.”

“You stay, I’ll go,” said her brother Anas, 31, an automobile mechanic. “Life is good, but if I had an opportunity, I would leave tomorrow without looking back. I’m managing as a single man, but it’s not enough to raise a family.”

Emigration to the West is a real concern for the entire region’s Christian community, which is shrinking every year.

For some, such as the Dayyat family, emigration has proved tempting. The eldest son, Joseph, left Ader to study in San Francisco 26 years ago and then stayed to open a restaurant. Later, his two younger brothers joined him. His sister, Manal, who lives with her husband in the densely populated city of Zerqa, comes back to the village frequently to visit her mother and two sisters, who live in the family home. Unlike her brothers, she cannot see herself leaving Jordan and hopes to return to Ader. “I like living here,” she said. “In a village, it’s so easy to talk to people, to visit them. Life is easier here.”

With humor, Father Basheer keeps it all in perspective. “The Madanat family [the largest Orthodox tribe in the area] is bigger than my little Hijazine community here, but they’re all in Pennsylvania.”

To a large degree, Jordan’s economy relies on tourism. Few Jordanians understand this better than the Christians of Madaba, a town of 60,000 people located near biblical Mount Nebo, from which Moses gazed upon the Promised Land.

Home to the Old Testament’s Moabites and later an important Byzantine center, Madaba had lain dormant for centuries until 90 Christian Bedouin families from the Kerak region, led by two Italian priests of the Latin Patriarchate, resettled it in 1880. These early settlers began to excavate the site, unearthing in 1896 a sixth-century Byzantine church with a floor map depicting the Holy Land of the Byzantine era, including a detailed schematic of Jerusalem. Their find has attracted archaeologists and scholars from around the world for decades. It is one of the earliest extant maps of the Middle East and depicts sites of biblical and historical significance.

On the foundations of the Byzantine church stands a modern Orthodox church, dedicated to St. George, which now incorporates the map as part of the floor. An important archaeological find that draws large numbers of tourists and pilgrims, the map helps support the parish community.

“It’s a good source of income for the parish,” said St. George’s Father Bandalaimon Khoury. Admission fees have helped build the school and assists parishioners and poor families.

Most parishioners do not mind the large tour groups that pass frequently through their church. Though access to the church and its mosaic marvel is limited to hours when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, “a lot of tourists don’t know what they’re looking at,” said Father Bandalaimon’s wife, Lucy. “Some show the proper respect and some people go inside like they’re going into a house.”

Because Madaba is one of Jordan’s main Christian centers, it has attracted a number of evangelical Protestant missionaries from the West, who, while forbidden by law to proselytize among Muslims, are not prevented from proselytizing other Christians. Father Bandalaimon said that while relationships among Catholics and Orthodox in Madaba are generally good, tension has surfaced regarding the work of the evangelical missionaries.

“As long as everyone respects each other’s space and their borders, things are fine,” he said.

St. George’s serves as the center of the Orthodox community. For some, it is a place to socialize. “Your parents don’t ask why you’re late,” said 16-year-old Qais Samaeen, who had joined his friends for a Bible study group. “They know you’re at the church and the priest is with you.”

Lucy Khoury is deeply involved in running many of the church’s social and educational activities, a role she says is rare for many priests’ wives in Jordan. “I’m the boss,” she said, grinning. “I do everything except celebrate the liturgy.”

For one parish member, Tariq Halasa, St. George’s serves as a focal point of her life now that her children are grown and her husband has passed away. She lives in the family home with her daughter, Ilkhas, 37, and she spends much of her day in prayer. Three of Mrs. Halasa’s five children still live in Madaba, although they are often busy with work and family. Her son, Salman, lives next door, but sometimes she does not see him for a week. “It depends on his work, if he has time,” she said. “He has his own life.”

Her oldest son, Tariq, moved to Canada to work as a civil engineer, and he and his sister, Suha, who teaches pediatric nursing at the University of Jordan, send money home to support their mother.

Though Madaba lacks many of the modern comforts of Amman, Mrs. Halasa values its community. “We love each other in Madaba,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”

We are very busy here,” Father Khalil Jaar said as his phone rang constantly. A quick glance at the next day’s schedule confirmed his statement: His parish, Amman’s St. Mary of Nazareth, was booked with weddings, baptisms, funerals, daily Mass and other devotions.

Located in an affluent area of West Amman, St. Mary’s is the capital’s largest Latin parish and, according to Father Khalil, “the most active parish in Jordan.” The semiannual activity plans submitted by the parish council outline ambitious programs of meetings, charity events, social gatherings and retreats for the coming months.

The congregation includes some of the more prominent Jordanian Christian families, and weekly liturgies in English, French and Spanish draw many expatriates. Because of the relative wealth of his parishioners, Father Khalil encourages charity work. “I try to stimulate them to help their poor brothers and sisters in East Amman,” he said, referring to a poor area of the city.

The parish supports free catechism and English language classes for underprivileged children in East Amman and contributes toys and clothes. The church also contributes to Islamic charities in order to assist Jordanian Muslims in need. Assistance also goes to help Iraqi children in need of medical care.

Of the church’s 1,300 registered families, more than 500 are Iraqi. Father Khalil said the church welcomes a large number of non-Catholics, both Iraqi and Jordanian, to its services. “People of all backgrounds come here,” he said. “We do our best to make each one feel at home.”

Some of the parishioners lead a typical Western lifestyle. Suhair Naber, a housewife living in the suburbs of Amman, attends Mass regularly with her family and supports the parish’s various charitable endeavors, but she rarely finds time for more active involvement. “The world’s changed; everyone is busy,” she lamented. “When you have a family, it’s different. All day you run.”

In addition to rearing three children – who enjoy horseback riding, swimming and soccer – and maintaining her elegantly furnished home, she works part-time as an interior director and cooking instructor.

Although she has relatives in the United States, Mrs. Naber has no desire to leave for the even faster-paced American life. “We prefer it here in our country. You work whenever you want, you sleep whenever you want. People with good salaries don’t need to go out of the country.”

Although many Christians in Amman are wealthy, they have not been spared the economic malaise that has hit the kingdom. Declining salaries and a high cost of living are forcing many families to be more frugal and it is increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

“Life is difficult here. It has a high price,” said George Jaqaman, now unemployed after working 15 years as a barber. His Bethlehem-born wife, Elham, has a university degree and was trained as a social worker in the United States. She has not been able to find full-time employment. Currently, she works as a receptionist at a Christian school in their Amman neighborhood, where her young children, Michael and Johnny, receive financial aid. She regrets being unable to pursue her career in social work, which is her passion. “But I’m thankful to God. There are people who don’t have work.”

Jordan’s most vulnerable Christians are not even citizens of the kingdom, but Iraqis fleeing the violence now tearing apart their country. Most of these refugees are Chaldean and Syrian Catholics, others are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Akram, a Chaldean who preferred not to give her last name, lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Amman with her husband, Daoud, and their four children. Sitting in a plastic chair in her sparse living room – a small Christmas tree and a statue of the Virgin Mary were the only personal touches – Akram said her family’s liquor store in Iraq had been blown up and their house damaged. Christians in Iraq have been targeted since the United States invasion, she said. The family fled to Jordan since “everything we had was destroyed.”

She sold her jewelry to help support her family. Now, she cleans houses. Her husband was paralyzed from a wound sustained during the Iran-Iraq War and cannot work. The family receives help from a few religious organizations, but not enough, and Akram hopes her family can find a better life elsewhere. “I’m depending on God and Jesus to help me,” she said. “The most important thing is my children’s safety.”

Zvart Demrigian, 17, and her sister Gacia, 15, talked excitedly about their impending trip to Armenia. They will be the first in their family to visit their ancestral home, and the trip is more important than just any vacation. “Here the Armenian people are not so many,” Zvart said. “We like our culture, and we are working to save it.”

There are only a few thousand Armenians in Jordan, and they are a close-knit group with their own churches, schools and social clubs.

The girls’ mother, Barkevouhi, a bubbly Tupperware saleswoman, was 15 when she met her husband, Avedis Demrigian. He came in search of a wife to the Syrian orphanage where she was living. The sisters who ran the orphanage asked her if she wanted to marry him and she agreed. Now, she has her hands full rearing four daughters.

Mr. Demrigian, a soft-spoken shoemaker, owns a small factory next to his home. Like other Jordanian craftsmen, he has lost business thanks to the influx of inexpensive goods from China. “Their work is not quality work, but it’s cheap,” he said.

“Work is not good. A lot of factories have closed.”

The baby shoes he made for his oldest daughter hang above his desk, as do the shoes his own father had made for him. They symbolize the importance of their Armenian heritage and respect for the past. Nevertheless, Jordan is the Demrigians’ home, and they consider themselves as Jordanian as their Arab neighbors, Bedouin, Palestinian or Iraqi.

“We are proud to live in Jordan; we are lucky to live here,” Zvart said. Gacia agreed. “We belong to the country where we’re born.”

A Fulbright scholar in 2004-2005, Anne Womer writes from Amman.