SWEIMEH, Jordan — Amid the chaos of the Middle East, the Kingdom of Jordan is an oasis of peace and a land of prophets — and not just Abraham, Moses, Elijah and St. John the Baptist.
In modern times, the Holy Land’s eastern bank provides a prophetic vision of the Middle East, where Christians and Muslims live together in harmony, building a civil society that upholds the rights and dignity of all. A powerful icon of Jordan’s integrated Christian-Muslim society is found in King Abdullah II, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, who has commissioned the building of 11 churches at the Baptismal Site of Jesus in Bethany Beyond the Jordan, which is revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
Father Nabil Haddad, a leading figure of interfaith dialogue in Jordan, who runs the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, met with the Register and other Christian writers at the Dead Sea Marriott hotel on Oct. 14 after the inauguration of the new Pope Francis Center in Amman. The Melkite Greek Catholic priest fielded questions from the group about Jordan’s mission of peace in the Middle East, the role of the new center and how Christians in the U.S. can support Jordan’s Christians and learn from their witness of Christian-Muslim coexistence.
Father Nabil, what do you believe is the solution to the Middle East’s suffering?
You come at a time when you see Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya continuing to face crimes on their soil. Aleppo, an old city, a very beautiful old city in the north of Syria, is being bombarded; killing is all over; ISIS is on our northern borders; Mosul in northern Iraq, the plateau of Nineveh, cradle of the culture and civilization of humankind, is being threatened because of hatred.
This region has been in turmoil, and everything is justified by religion. The solution for our problems starts with using religion as a solution, and this is where all our interfaith work starts. We need to realize that religion must be the solution — it’s not the cause of conflict. Those who use religion to justify their hatred must be stopped. And this could not be done by one country, one nation or one continent. I think this is a global threat, and it will take a global effort.
What we need to do is first to realize that religion must be used to build peace and understanding in this part of the world. The people of the Middle East deserve to live in peace. Unfortunately, this region has always been pregnant with pain, blood and hatred. And, unfortunately, when we talk about this region as a holy land, we see that the land — the geography — is holy, but the mentalities and minds are not the minds of peace and change.
Father Nabil, you just inaugurated the Pope Francis Center in Amman. Can you talk about what the center’s mission will be in Jordan?
This will be a forum that will bring a Christian voice to the community and society and make it known not only in Jordan, but in the region. I don’t ask my Muslim neighbors to give me a good-conduct certificate. Being a Christian, I want to reach out to them and give them my message of love. And this institution is going to do this.
Our main target is youth. We cannot afford to wait; we have to work as of yesterday, because of extremism. We cannot just sit back and watch things worsen more and more. As a Christian community, we have to take the lead — if not the lead, we have to take a part at least, in doing this. And when we do this, trust me, we are not serving Jordanian society only. We are serving the region, and we are serving globally.
Why is this new center for interreligious dialogue named after Pope Francis?
We believe that it is very timely to start a center and couldn’t find a better namesake than Pope Francis. … We were so grateful that God sent a holy man like Pope Francis because we felt the difference here and the echo of his speeches, his great initiative, when he reminds people that they are children of God. This is what the problem of the Middle East is all about: People do not realize that religion is a way to teach them that they are children of God, not only themselves, but also others, and that every other human being is a child of God.
We start with this new institution, where we want to give the voice of Christianity — I’m not saying the Catholic voice; I’m saying the voice of Christianity — a platform. We want to use this center as a platform that brings the Good News and hope at a time when there is so much blood, so much killing, and every crime is justified by a certain religious agenda.
Why do you believe Christianity and Islam can live together in the Middle East?
As an Arab Christian, I can tell you I have lived with Islam for 1,400 years. We are the experts on Islam; we are the experts on living and coexisting with Islam. Unfortunately, in this world, nobody is considering our vast and successful experience. We have grown as wise as serpents in this part of the world. We have lived with Islam, and we can teach others about how to live amicably with the Muslims.
We believe as Arab Christians we have a role to play. You have been to Petra: I tell you that Petra is an Arab Christian city. … You are in the east bank of the Jordan [River], where 80% of the biblical geography is. How could we talk about biblical geography without Christians? The Christian community continues to exist on this land after 2,000 years, and when Islam came in the seventh century, Christians coexisted with Muslims. We believe that it is our calling, our mission, our holy task that we continue to live here: to be the witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ. Although we are small in number, I assure you our voice is loud, and the Good News that we give you is the Christian Good News. We are the salt of this Holy Land — salt is “this much” in any dish you have, but I believe we count on the flavor that we have to give to our society.
How do Jordanian Christians coexist peacefully with Muslims? Not all Christians in the Middle East have this experience.
I tell you that we have enjoyed the kind of coexistence that we have had because we wanted to be a part of our own community. We refuse to live in isolation. I will not accept to live in isolation or to be isolated. I am an integral part of the community; I am part of the history; I am part of the past, of the present, and I want to be, with my children, part of the future. This is how I look at it, how Christians look at it. This is the best way, when we call for a civil society that is built on human rights, on democracy, on respect for human dignity, on equal citizenship, on social justice. How could we talk about this if we don’t believe that we have to take part in our community and to contribute to the general good of society? This is the calling of the Church. This is what Pope Francis said when he gave a speech at the royal palace in 2014, when he came as a pilgrim.
How do you live as a witness to your faith in a Muslim community?
My calling here is to be a Christian witness in a Muslim community. If I were to be a Catholic priest in Japan, it would be my calling to be a witness in a Japanese society. We need to live and give the message. You can’t give the message if you don’t communicate with people. You don’t give your witness if you don’t interact with people, if you live in isolation. I think it is very suicidal.
I said once to [Coptic Orthodox] Pope Shenouda, may God rest his soul in peace, there are 10 million Copts [Egyptian Christians] in Egypt, compared to 160,000-170,000 Christian here — and we have more of an active presence here! We have to stop being the disgruntled group. We have to make the change, and we cannot do that if we always complain about being isolated. I tell you, from my own experience, as I told your colleague, that I refuse this isolation. I can’t! How could we be witnesses, how could we carry our testimony, if we live behind closed doors? It is very suicidal.
What do Christians in Jordan expect from Christian churches in America?
We want to see you here. That’s why I feel so proud when I see my fellow American Christians come to my church, come to our land, come to Jordan — as pilgrims who show solidarity. Solidarity cannot be shown by sending a check or in-kind aid. That’s needed, to help the poor Jordanians, not only the Christians, but all Jordanians, and to help Iraqi and Syrian refugees. But the solidarity that we need is to see you with us. I always call on our American brothers and sisters: We want to see you worship with us, eat with us, talk to us and live with us. We want to see you walk with us downtown in Amman, in our villages, in our streets. I want people to see that these Christians come here to Jordan because they believe in this land; they believe that Christianity was birthed here. Our Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, but in our theology, the proclamation of the one God and the Holy Trinity took place 10 minutes from here, right at Bethany Beyond the Jordan. This is the legacy that we have, and we will continue to carry that legacy and live here.
What message would the Christians of Jordan like to send to America’s Christians and churches?
We are called upon as Christians to carry the Christian message and to be witnesses. We are the children of the first Church. Your Arab Christian brothers and sisters have been the Christian voice in this part of the world since the day of Pentecost. This is the message that we want to give and the message we ask you to give when you go back to beautiful America, the good people of America. Tell them that these Christians have lived and will continue to live here. They need your solidarity.
We also expect from the Christians and Christian churches in America support of every peace initiative here. The people of this region deserve to live in peace, and we expect them to encourage us to live amicably with our Muslim neighbors. We cannot continue to live here if we don’t learn the lesson that the Christian minority must reach out to the Muslim majority. Life is like that: Usually, the majority doesn’t reach out to the minority.
We are a small community — small in numbers, but we have a role, a mission, and that is to prove that Muslims and Christians can live together. The model we have in Jordan, the model of Christian-Muslim coexistence, is something that we cherish, but it does not belong to us. It’s not just our property; it’s the property for the whole world. If we want to solve the problem of extremism and terrorism, I think we need Jordan. We need the Jordanian model of coexistence.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
He was in Jordan from Oct. 7-15 on a pilgrimage for
religious writers sponsored by the Jordanian Tourism Board.