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Christians in the Muslim World

The Christians of the East: the Invisible that Keeps them Alive

In Amman, during the day of the visit of Pope Francis, the community of Christians in Jordan met at the stadium. This was an event that attested to a strong sense of belonging to the universal Church and the need for those who live in the Holy Land to feel ‘preferred’ and confirmed in their faith.

What you see and hear in the stadium of Amman is a great deal, a very great deal. But what you do not see is even more surprising, the capital of Jordan itself. From the early morning there are countless faces, banners, songs, choruses of welcome and gigantic rosaries of pink balloons, a celebration that gradually takes off…In the same way as one gets lost amongst the hundreds of volunteers who are at work (there are over 500), the families waiting under parasols to defend themselves against the Middle Eastern sun, the babes in arms arranged for an exhausting day, the security forces spread out all over the capital. But what cannot be measured with one’s eyes, what comes before the colour and the noise, is the most interesting part of the account of this visit of the Pope to the Middle East.

 

 

Pilgrimages by a Pope are not unprecedented, above all in Jordan, which can boast a record: it is the only country which can claim four papal visits (Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis). But such events are always a novelty which breaks what could become habit.

 

 

The Holy Mass celebrated in the stadium in the Holy Land, in a land – an oasis someone called it – freed from the violence that afflicts neighbouring Syria and hangs over the Lebanon as a threat every second, a few miles from Israel and Palestine, was once again a novelty. Something that introduced a new beginning to push forward in a decided way.

 

 

That thirty thousand people left their homes to go and find a place in the stadium many hours before the arrival of the Pope (as the heavy security measures required) confirmed the strong sense of belonging and identity of a people which, although it makes up just 2-3% of the overall population of a country where the day is cadenced by the call to prayer of the muezzin, knows where it wants to find a base.

 

 

The ‘land of the incarnation’, as it was called in an interview for Oasis by Msgr. Marcuzzo, once again saw Christians on the move to see the Pope. Why? They answer “because we are looking for words of hope”, said Diana, a student of Irbid, “because we need peace, and not only for ourselves”. “Because life is difficult”, observed Sa’id, “because the economic crisis in Jordan and the instability of the entire region is killing the future of young people and we have to find something that is solid on which to base ourselves”. “Because the Pope compels us to go to the source. Because the Pope is the Pope and encourages us. And who does not need courage?”

 

 

In Jordan the Christians are neither persecuted nor do they see themselves as being strongly discriminated against. They are aware that being a minority involves a price to pay, in the sense that they have to strive rather more than other people to emerge, to obtain their own space. But they know that many of the difficulties that they experience are the same as the Muslims here. “We are in a net minority’, argues Abdallah, “what can we ask of the state? Take for example the dramatic question of emigration which is emptying the country of its best resources: if a young man studies engineering for five years and manages to get a job that pays 400 dollars a month, which will not even allow him to live, it is clear that he will decide to leave. But this is not something that happens only with Christians: it is the same with young Muslims”.

 

 

Christians are citizens equal to others in the Holy Land, observed the Pope shortly after his arrival when he met the King. And of this are convinced all those who went to hear him and started to run, overcome by enthusiasm, behind the Popemobile. Citizens to the full ‘of tomorrow’ were the children, sitting in their thousands in the first rows, dressed in white, ready to receive first communion during the Mass with Pope Francis in the Jordanian stadium. Lively, composed and at times distracted, like children all over the world, watched over by their families a little way off, they said to Francis and the world, physically, “we are here”. We are here in this land where God decided to bend down to men, to make Himself one of them and to begin a new history. We are here, “baba Fransis”, in this troubled Middle East, where foreign actors play strategic games above our heads. We are here in this country which today has almost half a million Syrian refugees according to the official statistics (although unofficial estimates speak about over a million presences), after receiving hundreds of thousands from Iraq and before that from Palestine.

 

 

To the refugees, as to the sick, in Jordan, the Pope paid especial attention, embracing them near the location of the baptism of Jesus on the River Jordan. A gesture which, in the place where the public life of the Nazarene began, placed before the eyes of the world a question that can no longer be put off: the lives of these people who are forced by war to leave their homes, their jobs and their affections for an uncertain elsewhere, and a suspended destiny, is a question that concerns every man. Including the opulent cities of the West which have to ‘deal with’ refugees who materialise, by adventurous ways. in their central stations and ask for refuge.

 

 

The Muslim context, as well, did not remain impassive. The posters at every step in the streets of Amman with the photograph on them of the first meeting of the King and the Pope which took place in Rome some months ago and the announcement of the imminent visit made the Pope familiar to the people and helped to accredit Jordan as a country where there is not only religious freedom but also where interreligious dialogue is promoted in a way that takes place in no other Middle Eastern country. The Jordanian media did not encounter difficulty in finding pictures of Pope Francis that were able to speak to their readers without special filters. The snapshots of the Pope of mercy, who embraced deformed sick people as well, spread to such a point that Muslims themselves hoped that this visit could offer a further opportunity to start afresh: “We have suffered a great deal because of the Arab springs”, observed ‘Doctor’ Ali, the owner of the Le Vendome Hotel in the centre of Amman. “They did not hit our home but they did hit the home of our neighbours; they upset every existent equilibrium and now we hope that Pope Francis can help us to rediscover order, to wash our hearts. Here we must start afresh. Here we need to reconstruct an authentic and fecund peace’.

 

 

In his homily at the stadium Pope Francis dwelt upon the urgent need for peace which “cannot be bought” because it is “a gift to be looked for patiently and built ‘as with a skilled trade” through small and great gestures which involve our daily lives”. In that phrase of a skilled trade there seems to be contained the whole of the challenge that these lands and these peoples immediately await, a challenge that asks for very personal, unique, creative and original work but which simultaneously is team work: of communion.

 

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