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Christians in the Muslim World

A special Flowering from Very Ancient Roots

Jordan. The history of a Church born immediately after the martyrdom  of St. Stephen. From the golden period of Christianisation  until the conquest by Islam. A sick builder and the extension of the Latin Patriarchate  of Jerusalem. Since the twentieth century an irreplaceable role.

Jordan is an integral part of the Holy Land, in addition to being a Biblical country linked to the history of Salvation and the life of Christ, of the prophets, of the apostles and of the martyrs. Jordanian Christians continue the cultures of the Old and New Testaments and their identity is closely bound up with the holy places and the history of the Church in the Middle East in general and in the Holy Land in particular. One cannot truly understand a large number of the pages of the Old Testament without referring to the contemporary geography of Jordan.

 

 

The spread of Christianity outside the boundaries of Judea began very early on, in particular after the martyrdom of Stephen and because of the persecution of which the Church was the victim. Clearly this first spread of Christianity began with the territories bordering on Samaria and Judea in which both Pagans and Jews lived. The persecutions of Christianity continued to take place periodically for the first three centuries of its history, as for that matter occurred with all the Churches of the Roman Empire. History records a number of martyrs in Petra, Kerak, Pella (Tabaqat Fihl), Umm Qays and Amman, of whom the most famous are certainly Xenon and Xenia who underwent martyrdom in Amman on 23 June 204, at the time of the Emperor Maximian. Thus, in Jordan, as well, the seeds planted by martyrs found a fertile terrain.

 

 

At the end of the fourth century Jordan was completely Christianised: splendid churches sprung up everywhere and the monastic and ascetic life flourished, as is proved by the remains of dozens of basilicas discovered in Jerash (Gerasa), Madaba, Amman, Petra, Umm al-Rasas, Umm al-Jamal and elsewhere, which bear witness to the strength of the faith of Christians at that time and their love for the houses of God. To the prosperity of the country contributed the political security that was guaranteed at the borders of the desert by the Arab tribes, many of which – in particular the Ghassanids of the centre-north of the country and the Nabateans of the south – embraced Christianity. In many regions the Christian faith assimilated the character of tribal life: the bishops were elected from the members of each tribe and amongst these tribes there thus germinated the seeds of Christian values. Aramaic, a dialect of which is still in use today in some parts of the Middle East, and known as Syriac, was not only the language of the people but also the language of the liturgy both in Jordan and in Palestine and the whole of Syria. This means that all the other liturgies present in contemporary Jordan (the Byzantine, the Armenian, the Latin, etc.) come from abroad. Their spread in Jordan was due to various reasons, the first of which was the nearness of the Holy Land. All the Churches aspired to put down roots there because it is not the monopoly of a single group nor the property of a single community – it is the common heritage of all Christians. The second reason is that many of the pilgrims that went to the holy places ended up by embracing monastic life in the desert beyond the Jordan.

 

 

Jordan remained fully Christian until the entrance of the Arab-Islamic armies which conquered Amman on 16 August 636 under Yazîd Ibn Abî Sufyân. At that time only a small minority converted to Islam. But for various political, social and economic reasons, and because of the oppression and persecution carried out by a number of governors, the Muslim minority began to grow in numbers and the Christian population decreased, although it remained a majority for many centuries.

 

 

When the crusades were over Franciscan friars installed themselves in the holy places which had been bought in 1333 by the King of Sicily and became their property in 1342. However in Jordan places that were recognised as being holy did not exist (Mount Nebus, for example, was transformed into a sanctuary only during the twentieth century) and for this reason the presence of missionaries remained very limited and sporadic.

 

 

Things changed with the creation of the Latin Patriarchate in 1847. The first Latin Patriarch, H.E. Monsignor Giuseppe Valerga, immediately established a seminary and sent a number of missionaries to study with the Jesuit fathers in the Lebanon. A curious anecdote is told about this event. Amongst the chiefs of the Christian tribes that went to Jerusalem to welcome the new Patriarch there was a man who had come from Nazareth together with his twelve-year-old son. Receiving their greetings, the Patriarch commented that he wanted to see that child later enter the seminary. The man answered him: ‘Your Beatitude, I will offer him to you as a priest’. The child in question later became Abûna Yûsef Tannûs, the founder of the Sisters of the Rosary together with Sister Marie Alfonsine, whose cause of beatification, which is still waiting for the proof of a miracle, is deposited in Rome.

 

 

The First School

 

 

The extension of the Latin Patriarchate to Jordan was the outcome of a special circumstance. One day a Christian from Salt wanted to build a house and brought a builder, of the Latin rite, from Bethlehem for this purpose. As soon as he arrived the builder fell ill and fearing for his life he asked to see a Latin priest but it was discovered that the nearest such priest lived in Nablus, two day’s horse ride away. A delegation was sent from Salt and the priest, leaving everything, followed the envoys. He stayed with the sick man for about a week as the latter’s condition got worse and worse every day. When the man died, the priest, after celebrating the funeral, got ready to leave. However the inhabitants of the village asked him to stay, struck by his pastoral zeal. The priest suggested that the authorisation of the Patriarch of Jerusalem be requested and he was thus allowed to stay. When in other towns and cities it was known that Salt had a missionary everybody began to ask the Patriarch for the same thing and in this way the Latin Church spread in the country.

 

 

It should be said that at that time the situation in Jordan was very difficult: ignorance was widespread, both amongst the Muslims and the Christians, and belonging to Christianity or Islam was simply a tribal questions. During the Turkish epoch, the number of schools in what is now Jordan could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Latin Patriarchate became a pioneer in the field of education and instruction and remained such for a period of about ninety years, until the Second World War. Through its schools it worked for the keeping of the Christian faith, the education of the new generations, and the teaching of reading and writing to the inhabitants, both Christians and Muslims. The first school was opened in Salt in 1864. This was followed by others: in Rumaimin in 1873, in al-Fuheiss in 1874, in Kerak in 1876, in Madaba in 1880, in al-Hisn in 1885, etc.

 

 

As regards the schools of the religious Orders dependent on the Latin Patriarchate, these were founded during the second half of the twentieth century, following the war of 1948 and the arrival of Palestinian refugees. The schools of the religious Orders make up the educational pole of the middle and upper classes, whereas those of the Patriarchate serve the middle classes and the poorer classes. In addition, the schools of the Orders are in Amman and the principal cities and those of the Patriarchate are located both in the major cities and in the towns and the countryside. Both types of schools are normally built near to monasteries or churches so that their students can be assured a liturgical education. They reflect the reality of Jordanian society and bring together within the same walls Christians and Muslims, with a special vocation to be a place of coexistence and daily dialogue between teachers and between students. Often the bond of friendship which ties together young people from different backgrounds and Christians and Muslims fosters the development of a personality open to welcoming and living together with the other. Today there are thirty-three schools dependent on the Latin Patriarchate and they are either the property of the Patriarchate itself or of the Orders, having a total of 19,323 students, both boys and girls. In particular, ten schools belong to male and female religious Orders and have a total of 8,623 students and a percentage of Christians of 54%, whereas twenty-three schools belong to the Patriarchate and have a total of 10,700 students, of whom 7,672 are Christians, a percentage of 70-71%. The Latin schools enjoy the respect and esteem both of the government and of the people. They are under the Jordanian Ministry of Education and Instruction and it should be observed that they are the principal source of priestly and monastic vocations.

 

 

The youth movements, the most important of which are the Christian Youth Movement, the Scout Movement and the Hearth Movement, have today acquired an important role at the side of these schools.

 

 

In our parishes the role, the influence and the ecclesial and pastoral responsibility of the laity are growing. This orientation was made its own in a clear way by the Synod of Catholic Churches of the Holy Land which ended during the year of the Great Jubilee, that is to say in 2000. From that synod were born numerous committees that continue to work with alacrity.

 

 

 

 

Christians in the Institutions

 

 

The Latin Christians in Jordan and their Christian brethren of the other Churches live their religious lives with increasing awareness, interest and responsibility. They are open to their Muslim brothers and sisters in normal social life and in daily dialogue. In Jordan the Christians have never lived segregated in ghettoes but have always mixed with Muslims in the various cities, towns and villages, even though it is true that a small number of villages, such as Samakia in the south of the country, al-Fuheiss in the centre and Shatna in the north, have conserved a clearly Christian character. In the same way, Christians take part in social, political and cultural life in all its aspects. The custom has grown up, which is not codified by the law, that one or two Christian ministers should be in the government, and Christians have reserved to them by law nine seats in the Chamber of Deputies, of which three are at the present time occupied by the Latins: that of the south, that of Madaba and that of Irbid. Christians are also in the army where, for that matter, they manage to reach high positions.

 

 

Dialogue between the Christian confessions does not go beyond daily life and meeting each other on major occasions, both of pain and of sadness, and at mixed marriages. However the Catholic Church has adapted to the celebration of Easter according to the Julian calendar which is generally followed in the East, whereas the Orthodox laity have become committed to celebrating Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar, so that today the feasts are celebrated on the same date, a fact that convinced His Majesty the King to declare Christmas a national holiday for all citizens. It should, for that matter, be remembered that the bishops resident in Amman, namely the Greek Orthodox bishop, the Latin bishop, the Greek Catholic bishop and the Armenian Orthodox bishop, founded the Assembly of the Churches of Jordan in order to deal with questions shared by all the faithful. The number of Jordanian Christians oscillates between 160,000 and 170,000. At the present time there are thirty-two parishes of the Latin Patriarchate in Jordan and the number of Latin Jordanian citizens is 42,000, in addition to 3,000 foreigners most of whom come from Sri Lanka or the Philippines.

 

 

In the field of inter-religious dialogue we should certainly remember the activities involving support for the handicapped carried out at the Our Lady of Peace Centre which is dedicated to sensitising Jordanian society to the problem of disabled people and their rights. Beginning with the shared conception of the dignity of every man as a creature willed by God, this centre works amongst both Muslims and Christians. In conclusion, the future of Christians in Jordan is in the hands first of all of the Christians themselves. Will they truly want to bear witness to Christ or will they prefer to emigrate? Many have left but we try to teach those who have stayed that we have a mission to accomplish: to bear witness to Christ in our Muslim society.

 

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