AMMAN, Jordan (RNS) The hottest ticket in town is for an audience with Pope Francis during his visit this Saturday (May 24). Large posters featuring King Abdullah shaking hands with Francis hang in the capital of this Muslim country.
The pope is scheduled to celebrate Mass in an Amman stadium and visit the traditional Jordan River site of Jesus’ baptism, in addition to other official meetings. Catholic officials say the pope will focus special attention on children, people with disabilities and the more than 1 million refugees who have flooded into Jordan from Iraq and now Syria.
No one seems to find it odd that this officially Islamic country is rolling out the red carpet for the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination. In fact, the Christian population of Jordan is estimated at less than 3 percent, with Roman Catholics numbering somewhere around 20,000. But despite their small numbers, the Jordanian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and Christians hold prominent positions in business, the military and government.
“There is really no persecution for being a Christian in Jordan,” one pastor told me. “Sometimes Christians say things that are not very smart, but they get criticized, not punished, and people know it is that person, not all Christians.”
But the elephant in the room in every discussion of religion is conversion. Jordanian law, based on Shariah, is interpreted to prohibit proselytizing, and Muslims who convert to Christianity are often subjected to violence and cultural discrimination. “Honor killings” are against the law yet still occur, usually related to a person who converts from Islam.
Churches and Christian organizations are active in the care of Syrian refugees, who are mostly Muslim, but almost all emphasize that they are providing no-strings-attached relief. They sponsor clothing drives, give out food packages and help new refugees register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Sometimes they hold discussions about faith, but almost all do so with respect for the teachings of the Quran.
Christian pastors in Jordan work hard to respect their Muslim neighbors while also practicing their own faith authentically. Many have studied Islam and understand what teachings are consistent between the Bible and the Quran. Some use phrases that are common to Muslims, like “Inshallah” — if Allah (or God) wills. Others shy away from Arabic phrases with Muslim connotations, including the common greeting of “Ah Salaam Alaikum,” believing them to be tied too specifically to teachings of Islam.
As in many Middle Eastern countries (including Israel), Christian denominations must be recognized by the government in order to operate legally. In addition to various Catholic and Orthodox traditions, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Seventh-day Adventist churches are all officially recognized. Churches registered as “societies” include the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
Christians who conduct religious work in Jordan without formal affiliation with a recognized denomination can be deported. There are mixed feelings among Christian clergy about foreigners who enter the country with a missionary agenda while working or studying. “We need to show God’s love to people without strings attached, “ said a Nazarene minister who did not want to be identified.
Christian sites in Jordan are a big tourist draw, and the Jordanian Tourism Board promotes Christian pilgrimages to see such places as Mount Nebo, Madaba, the Jordan River and Lot’s cave. Some say that the Christian tourism income is part of the reason the government protects the small Christian community in the country.
In many ways, Jordan represents a model of religious tolerance, although there are reportedly no Jews in Jordan and despite a formal treaty with Israel, the average Jordanian is likely to view Israel as hostile to Jordan.
By coming to Jordan, Pope Francis will shine a light on this Islamic state with a protected Christian minority and perhaps encourage other Muslim countries to follow Jordan’s model. And he will also draw attention to the critical assistance offered to refugees by churches and Christian organizations that are easing some of the burden on the country’s limited resources.
(Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of 11 books, including the upcoming “Skeptic’s Guide to Immigration” from IVPress.)
KRE/MG END BOURKE