Jordan's Christians and Muslims Coexist on Holy Ground

Religion Today Editor Janet Chismar recently returned from a week in the Kingdom of Jordan. In addition to touring the country's many biblical sites, she also spent time talking with local believers. This is the second installment of her report.

When Worlds Collide: Jordan's Christians and Muslims Coexist on Holy Ground

"Which will you choose?" In the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," filmed in Jordan's Petra region, Harrison Ford's character is asked to correctly pick out the chalice of Christ.

Most Americans who visit Petra recognize the movie reference and setting. What they may not realize is how perfectly the scene symbolizes core issues of faith in Jordan today.

All Jordanians must choose. On their government cards, Jordanian citizens must identify themselves as either "C" for Christian or "M" for Muslim. For some, Christianity is more a cultural marker than a personal relationship. People are "born" Christian; all Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants are "C's" by default.

So the second choice comes down to what that "C" really means on a personal level. One Jordanian Christian has "chosen wisely." He asked not to be identified in print, as he has been threatened in the past. We'll call him "Oden."

"Christianity should be a one-on-one relationship," says Oden, "not an institution." When he was 18, a next-door neighbor gave him a Bible and took him to the local Church of the Nazarene. After reading through the New Testament on his own, Oden chose to begin a personal relationship with the Savior.

"That started a war in my house," he shared. Leaving Catholicism brought shame to his Bedouin tribe, and "there was no peace with my family for two years." Eventually though, the whole family converted and Oden earned the grudging respect of his tribe.

Now Oden runs several ministries in Jordan: a prison outreach, Christian bookstore and a summer camp. "My dream is to send 1 million Bibles to Iraq," he says, and his vision is to reach Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East for Christ.

"I have no greater joy than serving the Lord," he adds. "We live in Jordan to be used by the whole Middle East."

Such passion is not without cost. About three years ago, Oden's camp was damaged by several break-ins and a fire apparently set by arsonists. Jordanian police authorities who investigated the attacks concluded that it was the work of "an extremist, highly militant group" from a city near the summer camp.

Two years ago, the bookstore was burned, and Oden frequently receivedthreatening calls in the middle of the night. Thanks to caller ID and a new phone line, the calls have now ceased.

Oden is quick to point out that the opposition is from local militant Muslims. He defends Jordan's King Abdullah II, who he says is friendly to Christians. In fact, Oden continues, the King has established a friendship with American televangelist, Benny Hinn, who "put Jordan on the Christian map."

A Washington Times report backs up Oden's perceptions: "In April, while on a visit to Washington to discuss trade issues with President Bush, Jordanīs King Abdullah met with 80 evangelical Christian leaders. The meeting was hosted by an American televangelist, the Rev. Benny Hinn, a friend of the late King Hussein and King Abdullah."

According to the Washington Times, "Hinn has been to Jordan seven times. In fact, King Abdullah had seen the evangelistīs TV programs and showed them to King Hussein, who then arranged to meet with Mr. Hinn, ministry spokesman David Brokaw says."

Could it be that the king, who is Muslim, is on his own spiritual journey? If so, it is extremely unlikely to become public knowledge. Muslims are prohibited by law from converting but it does happen.

Fadi Sharaiha, a Jordanian youth pastor, says, "No Muslim can visibly become Christian. If Muslims do convert, they stay in their families and keep it quiet. They keep the "M" on their identity card, although a few change and then go underground."

A reverse trend is the number of Christians who "convert" to Islam, to either marry or to get legally divorced, says Sharaiha. The second largest group of Jordanian believers are Catholic, and since divorce is prohibited in the Catholic Church, changing the "C" to "M" is a way out of marriage.

Muslims are permitted to have four wives, adds Oden, plus there are more Christian women than men. Those unable to find husbands are not permitted to work outside the home, he says. Their only option is to be supported by a brother, so some opt to marry Muslim men.

Catholics and evangelicals both are losing numbers of young people, some via Muslims marriages, but mostly to emigration caused by economic and political forces. Jordanian students will often study in America, then never return, says Oden.

Perhaps that is one reason the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Jordan seem opposed to Evangelical growth: they don't want to lose any more of their young people. And the Evangelicals are drawing people away.

According to Imad Shehadeh, president and founder of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS), "The Orthodox and Catholic churches have joined forces in attacking us by speaking against us publicly in their churches, by writing in the newspapers, and by asking the authorities not to give us any rights."

Shehadeh says the Catholics and Orthodox "also paint a very false impression of Evangelicals without dealing with us directly. In fact, these churches stand alongside Islam to oppose us. They often would use explosive political phrases that Muslims would employ to brand us as enemies of society. The Evangelicals in Jordan remain a marginalized and ignored group."

He also laments "the lack of freedom for Muslims to inquire or convert to anything outside of Islam. At the basis of all this is the lack of a basic human right to express one's opinion freely in search for truth. Muslims are denied the right to question their faith."

... and to choose wisely.

By Janet Chismar, Religion Today @

Religion Today - June 25, 2001

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