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from issue no. 12 - 2006

Catholic Schools in Jordan

The strategy of discretion

Since apostolic times discretion and adaptation to the changing political circumstances have marked the expience of Christians on the West Bank of Jordan. An accommodating attitude that has functioned up to today. But now…

by Gianni Valente

The liturgy of intercession in the Orthodox church of Amman for the 57 victims of the bomb attacks in the Jordanian capital in November 2005

The liturgy of intercession in the Orthodox church of Amman for the 57 victims of the bomb attacks in the Jordanian capital in November 2005

In the entrance hall of the Anjara school, in the north of Jordan, a naive mural portrays Jesus holding hands with Mary and Joseph in front of their house in Galilee. The words in Arabic are a quotation from the Gospel of Saint Luke. After finding her son among the Doctors of the Temple, Our Lady reproaches him for having disappeared without warning: «He then left with them and returned to Nazareth and was subject to them». An example of filial submissiveness pointed not too subliminally at the lively pupils who clamor in the classrooms. But also an image of analogous flexible docility before the circumstances of history and the succession of worldly powers that shows through the whole history of Christianity in Jordan.
Today in the Hashemite Kingdom the baptized number a few tens of thousands. But in the lands beyond the river where Jesus received baptism from John the Baptist the Christian faith has never been a stranger. Jesus himself visited Gadara, whose ruins lie near the modern Umm Qays, and cured two people possessed by demons in the episode narrated in the Gospel of Matthew. While Saint Paul must have passed through the country on his journey to Arabia, as attested in the Epistle to the Galatians. In a cave discovered in Ader, on the property of the local parish of Saint Joseph, some painted crosses can be seen that according to the experts of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum are evidence that the small cave was a meeting place of Christians already in the first century. But above all it is the ruins of countless churches from the 4th and 5th centuries scattered all over Jordan which prove that Jordanian Christianity flourished in the Hellenized urban centers of the period.
At that time the bishops of cities such as Philadelphia (the present Amman), Esbus and Aila (the present Aqaba) take part in the Council of Nicea. Faith in Jesus also reached what remained of the ancient people of the Nabatei, whose ancient capital of Petra will have its cathedral in 447. Outside the urban centers some nomadic Arab tribes or desert semi-nomads also became Christian. In the first half of the 7th century, when raids by Arab horsemen began the Islamic conquest, some of these clans formed alliances with the invaders who were of the same stock, thus assuring protection by paying tribute. In particular the still influential tribe of al-Azeizat (“the reinforcements”) fought at the side of the Prophet’s soldiery gaining their name and lasting respect from the new conquerors. In the following centuries, while the Hellenized cities became depopulated and decayed, a small Christian presence survived in Transjordan thanks to these marginal tribes, in an area itself become marginal after the transfer of the Caliphate to Baghdad. The artificial and ephemeral foundation of the Crusader principalities of Transjordan didn’t alter the situation on the gound. Only with the arrival of the Ottomans did a semblance of politico-territorial administration return to the area that guaranteed the particular features of the religious minorities, if also on a subordinate basis. Almost all the Christians of Transjordan – less than three thousand in the census in the reign of Solomon II – became subject to the jurisdiction of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, who took no pastoral care of them, however. In the anarchy that continued to mark the life of the region, the tribes preserved their own tenuous bond of belonging to Christianity, more than anything else in order to distinguish themselves from other clans of Islamic faith. «The Christian Bedouins of Jordan, no less bellicose than their Moslem neighbors, were able to get themselves respected. As for the vulnerable tribes, it was easy for them to place themselves under the protection of more powerful Moslem tribes by paying a tax» (J.P. Valognes, Vie et mort des chrétiens d’Orient, Fayard, Paris 1994, p. 618).

To build churches and schools friendship with the local sheikhs and with the Turkish officials had to be bought with some gifts. All the skill lay in keeping the largesse within reasonable limits
Holy bribes
In the mid nineteenth century the Christian Churches of Palestine – Latin, Greek-Catholic, Anglicans – with the consent of the Sublime Porte pushed across the Jordan in search of their own native faithful. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem soon revealed itself to be the morst dynamic pastorally. Thanks above all to the foundation of the first schools, pious and shrewd missionaries with long unkempt beards – among them Jean Morétain, Giuseppe Gatti, Alessandro Macagno – lived a unique and thrilling apostolic adventure among corrupt politicians, barbaric tribalisms and religious fanaticisms, in a closed and primitive ambience. «Saying the Dominus vobiscum and preaching to my parishioners, I looked downwards and I saw more horns and heads of animals than of faithful», Father Morétain recounts, describing his first mass in Salt, celebrated in a Christian house that also functioned as a stable. In order to build churches, schools and other works, the greedy corruption of the Turkish authorities of the region had to be satisfied. «According to long established usage», writes Pierre Médebielle in his history of the mission in Salt, «the indispensable friendship of the local sheikhs and the Turkish officials had to be bought with some gift. All the skill lay in keeping the largesse within reasonable limits».
Already then, in relations with the Moslem majority, religious permeability was a taboo shared by both sides: Médebielle also tells of a Christian who in 1882 beheaded his own daughter for having given herself to a Moslem. But except for the prohibition on attempted conversions, coexistence was habitually calm, with points of reciprocal affability: as when a sheikh of Karak wrote to the Patriarch of Jerusalem asking him to send a priest to look after his Christian countrymen. The fragile religious pax broke down here and there because of the explosion of tribal feuds or the fanaticism of some Moslem chief. But the Christian communities paid above all for reaction to western politics in the Middle East. The First World War offered the pretext for the most violent anti-Christian reprisals in the region, with the Turks inciting the Moslems to engage in raiding, and a large part of the Christians forced to flee in the wake of the English soldiers. The return after the war offered a desolate spectacle: churches transformed into stables, religious houses and schools destroyed. A letter of Bishara Farwagi, parish priest of Salt at the time, gives an idea of the situation: «The sight of Salt is pitiful. Fuheis is still burning and the governor tells me that it is reduced to a heap of ruins… All this requires new efforts».

King Abdullah II and Princess Rania with the heads of the Christian Churches of Jordan, in a photo of 2001. First on the left is Georges El-Murr, archbishop of Petra and Philadelphia of the Greek-Melkites

King Abdullah II and Princess Rania with the heads of the Christian Churches of Jordan, in a photo of 2001. First on the left is Georges El-Murr, archbishop of Petra and Philadelphia of the Greek-Melkites

Between King Hussein and the PLO
The Jordan of today is usually numbered among the “moderate” Islamic countries. Yet the Hashemite Kingdom created under the preceding British Protectorate of Transjordan, has never downplayed its character as a Moslem State. In the country, ruled by a dynasty that legitimates its power by direct descent from Mohammed, the secular and progressive theories of pan-Arab nationalism that up to the ’seventies’ were rampant in the neighboring countries, from Syria, to Egypt, to Iraq, never caught on. And when other Arab countries unleashed police campaigns against the Moslem Brotherhood, in Jordan the militants of the Islamic resurgence and also the Salafite hardliners have always enjoyed full freedom of action and propaganda. There is no second-thinking about the interpenetration of the Islamic religion and the institutions of the state. The Grand Mufti and the Imams of the mosques are nominated by the civic authorities, that oversee their activity. High Islamic dignitaries are consulted to judge the conformity of government decisions to the precepts of the Koran.
The Jordanian Christians have never raised objections of principle to the Islamic legitimization of the status quo, limiting themselves to taking advantage of the “moderate” application of Koranic rules by the rulers. Islam is a state religion, but the Constitution of 1952 sanctions the equality of all Jordanians before the law without discriminations based «on race, way of life or religion». «Free expression of all forms of worship and of religion, in accordance with the customs observed in Jordan», are guaranteed and also freedom of teaching («the Congregations will have the right to establish and maintain their own schools for the education of their own members», article 19 states).
In the snares and storms Jordan has gone through in recent decades, the Christian minorities have usually shown loyal and grateful homage toward the Hashemite dynasty. The recurrent waves of Palestinian refugees, fleeing from the territories occupied by Israel, have progressively and irreversibly altered the ethno-demographic profile of the nation. In the ’sixties some Palestinian Christians from Jordan – such as the Marxist Nayef Hawatmeh, a native of Salt – figured among the leaders of the PLO and of the other Palestinian organizations – a state within the state – that King Hussein dismantled and expelled from the country in the famous “black September” of 1970. But that was the only moment when various Christian subjects of Palestinian origin teetered between loyalty to the protecting dynasty Moslem and attraction towards the revolutionary political militancy that seemed ambitious to overthrow the monarchy.

The violins of Anjara
The outcome of the deference of Jordanian Christians to historical circumstances is of a political-social importance and public visibility paradoxically disproportionate to the exiguous numbers of baptized Christians in the country.
Catholic Iraqi girls at mass in the parish of Christ the King in Misdar, in the center of Amman

Catholic Iraqi girls at mass in the parish of Christ the King in Misdar, in the center of Amman

In Parliament 9 of the 110 seats are reserved for Christians. The current minister of Labor Bassem al-Salem is Christian, and former governments have had up to three ministers of Christian faith. There are Christians in the higher ranks of the army, in the royal court, in the justice administration, in charge of businesses and national banks. The journalists Fahed Alfanek, Tarek Masarwa and Salwa Amarin, among the most influential in the country, are Christians. Yet – a further paradox – this very gratifying social status earned without elbowing one’s way, without the fatigue of a struggle for identity, has resulted in giving some upperclass Christians the mistaken feeling that they are an elite beleaguered by the alarming phenomena taking shape in the country, the hodge-podge of frustrations and grudges, endemic unemployment and impotent desire for consumer goods that in the depressed suburbs of urban conglomerations is shattering the ancient Bedouin tribal traditions and latching on to the resentments of Islamist ideology. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the equivocal Jihad outlaw that US strategy has transformed into a media legend by picking him out as the link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, was born and grew up in Zarqa, in the years when the outskirts of the “Chicago of Jordan” got swamped by the shanties of the Palestinian refugee camps.
No surprise, then, if rich Christian families in Jordan are unwilling to put up with the threat to their future and send many of their children abroad. Thus, without apparent pressure, the emigration of Jordanian Christians is contributing to the silent extinction of Christian communities in the Arab Countries, an unspoken collateral effect of unthinking western geopolitics in the Middle East.
But not everyone is able to leave. The schoolchildren of Anjara don’t even think of it. Now that Father Hugo has managed to come up with two violins and has hired the Moslem conductor of the military band as teacher, they want to spend their afternoons playing at becoming great musicians.


There are various ways of supporting the schools of the Latin Patriarchate in Jordan (twinning of schools, financial support at a distance for individual students). For information contact Father Hanna Kildani (e-mail: kildani@ wanadoo.jo) or Nader Twal (e-mail: ntwal@ hcef.org).
Offerings can also be sent to a bank account at the Jordan National Bank

Name of Account Holder:
General Administration-Latin Patriarchate Schools;
Jordan National Bank
bank account n. 5002301035500443-04;
Swift Code: JONBJOAX;
Branch: Private Banking Branch.

The nuns of the religious Family of the Incarnate Word in Anjara lodge ten orphan girls or girls coming from problem families. For information about their work contact the parish priest Hugo Alaniz (hugoalaniz@ ive.org).
Offerings can also be sent to a bank account at the Bank of Jordan

Name of Account Holder:
Patricia Carbajal;
Bank of Jordan
bank account n. 0013030870640001;
Swift Code: BJORJOAX;
Branch: Ajlun Branch.

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