The Middle East's Christians and “the Jordanian option”

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There are just two weeks to go before Pope Francis’ arrival and the streets of Amman are already brimming with revelatory zeal: on what is going to be Francis’ fourth trip to the Holy Land, his visit to the Hashemite Kingdom is certainly not going to be a mere gesture of politeness, for the sake of following protocol. For King Abdullah II, the Argentinian Successor of Peter’s visit is going to be an event of key importance that will allow him to reaffirm the positive and strategic role Jordan intends to play in the Middle East, a region bloodied by sectarian conflicts. For the good of everyone, first and foremost the Christians living there.

Last 7 April the King of Jordan travelled from Amman to Rome and back just to spend forty minutes with Francis. They chatted over a cup of tea in the sitting room on the ground floor of the St. Martha House residence. This was an unexpected visit considering that Francis had received the King and his wife Rania just a few months before at the end of August 2013. It was a sign that Abdullah had something important he need to talk to Francis about ahead of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Pope left a strong impression on the young monarch ever since their first encounter. On the return journey from Rome, he confessed he had never met anyone like him in all the official meetings he had been to throughout his life. Back in his country, he made it clear that protocol was not to stand in the Pope’s way and that all his wishes should be granted. Speaking to Vatican Insider, Archbishop Maroun Lahham, Vicar for Jordan of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem said: “he told his collaborators that the only thing that mattered was that the Pope celebrated mass for our Christians.” As the Jordanian priest Rifat Bader explained on the website, the Pope’s short stay in Jordan – just a few hours – will not include the usual “official” interreligious meeting with Muslim representatives. Still, many Muslim officials and volunteers are directly involved in the preparations for the papal visit. “We have decided to concentrate on serving others,” Bader explained, “the service we can offer together as Christians and Muslims. The message we want to give is that love can overcome all obstacles. This is perhaps a more efficient way to communicate this than talking about dialogue in a mosque, a church or in a five star hotel room.”

The Pope was also struck by King Abdullah and his wife during their meetings in Rome. The fat that the two hits it off right from the start encouraged King Abdullah to continue his efforts to put himself across as the Muslim king who is the friend of Christians.

The Hashemite monarchy has been following the road of friendship for some time now, with unpredictable developments. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed - the royal representative who has always played a central role in the dialogue with Christians – also took part in Francis’ meeting with King Abdullah. Prince Ghazi holds a degree in Islamic Philosophy from Al-Azhar University and was one of the brains behind the initiatives launched by scholars and Muslim leaders to re-launch a dialogue of mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims after the problems triggered by Ratzinger’s controversial Regensburg speech in September 2006. These initiatives included the Letter to Benedict in October 2006 and the open Letter to the heads of Christian Churches in October 2007. It was Prince Ghazi who recently sponsored the most important and unique initiative for the promotion of relations with Christians ever to be launched by a Muslim dynasty: last September in Amman, Jordan’s monarchs called a summit of Church leaders and heads of Christian communities in the Middle East, in order to draw attention to the many problems – kidnappings, attacks, profanation and discrimination – that are affecting the lives of baptized people in all the upheaval the entire Middle Eastern region is experiencing. About seventy Patriarchs, patriarchal delegates, bishops and priests from all Christian Churches in the region attended a two-day meeting to discuss recent developments regarding the situations in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan.

The meeting was called by the Hashemite Monarchy who are descendants of the family of the Prophet Muhammad. The Hashemites claim they are the protectors of Islam’s sacred sites. The purpose of the meeting was to come up with concrete solutions to the emergencies that are threatening the survival of Christian communities in the Middle East. The aim is to guarantee, God willing, the security and prosperity of Christianity in the Middle East, Christianity being recognized as an indelible and essential part of the rich Middle East mosaic. In his speech to the meeting’s participants, King Abdullah made it very clear that protecting Christians in the religious conflicts that are raging across the Middle East is “not a question of politeness but of duty.” Arab Christians have played a key role in building Arab societies and defending the righteous causes of our nation.” The Hashemite monarch proposed a concrete alliance between Christians and Muslims to deal with and defeat sectarian groups that are fuelling conflict across the region. He also expressed his commitment to invest “every effort” in protecting the Arab Christian identity. “Arab Christians,” King Abdullah said, “are better placed than anyone to understand Islam and its true values.” Hence they are in a position to defend Islam from the widespread prejudices of those who “ignore the essence of this faith which preaches tolerance and moderation and rejects extremism and isolationism.” One of the areas of cooperation mentioned by King Abdullah is the defence of the Holy City as a place where people of different faiths can live peacefully side by side: “All of us have the duty to defend Jerusalem’s Arab identity and protect the Islamic and Christian Holy Sites.”

Jordan was not affected by the repercussions of the Arab Spring revolts although the Hashemite Kingdom, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist groups were never subject to any repressive campaigns and are free to propagandize. The way King Abdullah sees it, Christians are necessary in maintaining peaceful coexistence between different religious faiths and prevent sectarian violence not just in Jordan – which is now facing an immigration emergency and has to work out what to do with 1 million Syrian refugees - but across the Middle East. At the September meeting there were calls for concrete measures and proposals to guarantee a peaceful life for the baptized in the land where Jesus was born. When the Pope visits the Holy Land, it is possible King Abdullah will try to put his proposals into practice. As a Muslim King and custodian of Muslim Holy Sites he may propose a global plan for the protection of Christian communities in the Middle East. He would thus overcome the meagre concessions made to Christians and Jews under the “protected submission” principle because their common reference point, Abraham, father of all believers. A banner in the streets of Amman reads: “The Holy See and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan: together to build a civilization of peace and reconciliation”.

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