Issued by the Catholic Center for Studies and Media - Jordan. Editor-in-chief Fr. Rif'at Bader - موقع أبونا

Published on Saturday, 8 June 2024

Quarter a century of harmony… Churches and Christian institutions in the era of the King

By Fr. Dr. Rif'at Bader :

 In 2002, I was invited by the recently established Al-Hussein Ibn Talal University to speak at an international conference on the thought of King Hussein Ibn Talal. Several views, expertise, and studies were presented about the insightful thought of Al-Hussein, may his soul rest in peace. Today, marking the 25th anniversary of  His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al-Hussein Ibn Talal ascension to the Throne, I find myself also thinking about the development in the activities of Christian institutions during the period of this reign which is qualified by goodness.


In the 2002 conference, I spoke about the development of the Christian institutions in Jordan during the reign of King Hussein, may his soul rest in peace. Today, after a quarter century of continuous goodies, we can conduct a similar study: What development have Christian institutions undergone in our dear homeland over the course of a quarter century of the rule of King Abdullah II, a rule that will continue for many years, God willing.


On the Royal jubilee of His Majesty King Abdullah II, may God protect him, marking the assuming of his constitutional powers, the  mosaic of the Jordanian people, thanks the Almighty God for all His blessings and benevolences, which He bestowed on our beloved Jordan over 25 beautiful and influential years, despite the challenges and strong winds, which ravaged the region and the world. In this regard, the Christian Churches--with their pastors and believers--rejoice along every honorable human being that Jordan has remained a country of security, stability, brotherhood, and dialogue represented by its institutions and the launching of initiatives that preserved the bright, eastern, and global religious plurality, as well as strengthened sincere relations between the Muslims and Christians of this country at a time when Jordan has become a beacon of peace, love, harmony, and brotherhood throughout the world.


Establishing places of worship

We must first remember that the Christian institutions operating in Jordan are not confined to Christian citizens, as they rather serve the entire community, especially in places relevant to science and health, and places relevant to pioneering educational, social, and cultural services. As for the Christian places of worship, they have a peculiarity of being dedicated to Christian worshipers, with mosques that are dedicated to their Muslim brethren who have the right to go to these sites whenever they want, marking various occasions and times of prayer.


 This period was characterized by the building of numerous and various churches, from different denominations, with no reference to congregations, as some of them were funded by well-to-do families who wanted to serve the people of a specific area, by building churches that did not exist in the past, due to urban development and population expansion, as has been the case particularly in the areas of western and northern Amman, with some of them were funded directly by the churches and supported by charitable organizations.


As for the Baptism Site of Lord Jesus Christ, it has become an essential cornerstone for religious tourism to the Kingdom, as His Majesty the King participated with Pope Benedict on May 10, 2009, in laying the foundation stone for a church or rather the Cathedral of Baptism, to join its sisterly churches from various Churches in this holy site, which will witness great development in the near future, God willing, after the launching of the plan to develop the lands adjacent to the Baptism Site in 2022 under Royal patronage. The joint participation of his Majesty the King and His Holiness the Pope had a high reputation in the international press, as it took place at a time when terrorism was targeting mosques and churches in other parts of the world. As for Jordan, the leader of the country and the head of the Catholic Church jointly lay the foundation stone of the Baptism Church, near the Baptism River which bears the name of our dear Jordanian homeland.


In this period, the Mount Nebo Church in Madaba was renovated in 2016, being one of the ancient historic churches on the global Christian pilgrimage map. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Mount in Anjara was renovated, and plans began to renovate the Makawir Site, namely the site of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, and the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Na'our. The sisterly churches inaugurated several cathedrals in Amman and its environs, especially the Latin, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Syriac churches.


Personal Status

Here, we refer to the development that distinguished the ecclesiastical judiciary in Jordan, through the modernization of the personal status of Christians, and the launching of the Law of Christian Denominations Councils in 2014. The word “Christianity” was used for the first time, after it was called the Law of Non-Muslim Denominations.


The work of many ecclesiastical courts in various Churches has been modernized, and the Latin Ecclesiastical Court has been holding an annual conference for more than 10 years, in which many specialists from the Arab world and abroad are hosted to highlight the role of the courts, whose presence that is stipulated in the constitution is considered a sign of respect for religious plurality and Christian affairs, in litigation related to marriage, family, inheritance, legal guardianship, and others. His Majesty the King granted Jordanian citizenship to a number of Arab ecclesiastical judges, in order to facilitate their work in their own ecclesiastical courts.

Institutions for the entire society

During the reign of King Abdullah II Ibn Al-Hussein, we did not start from scratch as there was rather a great development of Christian institutions operating in close cooperation with national institutions and with various parties, because the common goal of all our institutions is to serve humanity, citizens, as well as serve good citizenship and the sincere national spirit.


In addition to establishing places of worship, other scientific, educational, social, and charitable in addition to establishing places of worship, scientific, educational, social, and charitable edifices were launched, to provide their services to all citizens without discrimination, as well as to refugees and the forcibly displaced who found in Jordan “a safe home in the middle of a burning neighborhood,” as a result of political or intellectual conflicts rejecting the different others.


Furthermore, it was also distinguished by the establishment of numerous schools, which are difficult to enumerate, and other educational institutions, as well as the renovation and consolidation of what existed for more than 170 years to serve humanity without discrimination, regardless of ethnic, religious, or sectarian grounds. Among them is the Latin Patriarchate-affiliated American University of Madaba, whose foundation stone was laid by Pope Benedict Pope Francis on May 9, 2009, and was officially opened to students of all nationalities on May 30, 2013, under the patronage of His Majesty King Abdullah II, in the presence of His Highness Crown Prince Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah II, and the representative of Pope Francis, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches at the time. 


Regarding social affairs, we point out that during this period, Caritas Jordan, the social arm of the Catholic Church, took pioneering steps on the path of love and benevolence, towards everyone who knocks on the door, whether being a local citizen--as it now has several centers in various governorates--or a suffering refugee in light of the security and political conditions situation that prevails in the countries surrounding the Kingdom. These also include the Humanitarian Care Home for the elderly in Fuheis, which was inaugurated under Royal patronage in 1999, and Our Lady of Peace Center for serving people with disabilities, also inaugurated under Royal patronage in 2004, and other institutions in various churches that jointly develop faith and strengthen the patriotic spirit among citizens.


The outset of the era: Consolidating the comprehensive national unity

The reign of King Abdullah II began by declaring Christmas, in 1999, an official holiday for all Christian citizens in schools or universities, coinciding with His Majesty's ascension to the Throne, which incidentally was the first Christmas during the reign of the King. We can imagine the extent of the spirit of national unity that has been strengthened, which is the spirit of the feeling that all citizens are his brothers and sisters under the umbrella of the unifying national umbrella or rather in the spirit of unifying national unity. The era of King Abdullah II started with the announcement of a feast and the feeling that Christmas is an official holiday and from the ideological standpoint it is a reinforcement of what is stipulated in the Holy Books, namely in the Holy Bible and the Holy Qur’an, that Lord Jesus Christ based the Christian religion on love, harmony, and the call to encounter among human beings.


Consequently, His Majesty the King’s announcement, at the beginning of his auspicious and happy reign, of a comprehensive holiday for the entire society in Jordan marking Christmas has enhanced the national spirit, and indicated that all Jordanians are united in toto. Since then, the meeting between His Majesty the King and the heads of Churches began, which became an annual tradition in which His Majesty extends greetings to his Christian sons and daughters in Jordan on the occasion of Christmas and the New Year. This became later a comprehensive Christian-Islamic meeting to which the heads of churches in Jerusalem and the heads of Islamic departments in Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to ecclesiastical and Muslim religious officials in Jordan are invited.


I hereby recall the year 2006, when His Majesty the King said-- before the heads of the churches, of what I considered to be a permanent path to the rule of the Hashemites, which was strengthened during the era of Abu Al-Hussein: “Everyone in Jordan, Muslims and Christians, form one united family, and work hand-in-hand for the interest, progress and prosperity of the homeland."


During the reign of His Majesty, religious affairs were organized, in general, including Christianity, through the office of His Highness Prince Ghazi Ibn Muhammad, Advisor to His Majesty the King for Religious and Cultural Affairs, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Baptism Site. Through this dear office, the work of the Council of Church Leaders was developed, linked with Jerusalem, and the work of each church and its relationship with Jordanian state institutions was organized. Through this dear office, the work of the Council of Church Leaders was developed, linked with Jerusalem, and the work of each church and its relationship with the Jordanian state institutions was organized.


The era of global initiatives

During the reign of King Abdullah II, the era of global initiatives for interfaith dialogue began. Prior to that, of course, Jordan had taken pioneering steps in the field of religious dialogue, especially after the visit of Pope Paul VI in his capacity as the first pontiff to go outside the walls of the Vatican and outside the Italian borders in 1964. Marka Airport in Amman was the first airport for a papal plane to ever touch down. He was welcomed by the late King Hussein Ibn Talal, during whose reign several dialogue centers were established, most important of which are the Royal Al al-Bayt Foundation for Islamic Thought and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies.


During the reign of King Abdullah II, the Royal Al al-Bayt Foundation for Islamic Thought under the leadership and guidance of His Highness Prince Ghazi Ibn Muhammad, and the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, headed by His Royal Highness Prince El-Hassan Ibn Talal. Dialogue and institutional initiatives were enhanced to form a new stream of initiatives that did not remain confined to the local level, but rather emerged to become global and to be approved in all international forums. Among these initiatives, we recall the 2002 Arab Christian Conference, the slogan of which was “Together to Defend the Nation,” during which the Christians of Jordan and Palestine affirmed their confrontation of charges of labeling Islam with terrorism. In 2004, namely 20 years ago, the 'Amman Message', was launched which clarified the true image of Islam in response to accusations that terrorism is linked to a specific religion. In that year, the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center was opened.


The 'Common Word' initiative was also launched in 2007, which is a historic agreement among Muslim scholars, headed by His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi Ibn Muhammad, in partnership with the Holy See, which demonstrated that the essence of religion is "the love of God and the love of one's neighbor" and this was associated with the establishment of the Permanent Catholic-Islamic Forum. In 2010, Jordan was a pioneer once again in launching the ‘Interfaith Harmony Week’, which was adopted by the United Nations countries in a unique consensus, and is celebrated in the first week of February every year.


In 2010, when a Synod of Christians from the Middle East was held in the Vatican City, His Majesty the King said in a letter addressed to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI:  "Your Holiness, we support you in your tireless endeavor to consolidate the logic of dialogue, common living, and fraternity in the Middle East, to achieve peace, and open the door of hope toward a better future for the people of the region and the world."


In 2012, the Catholic Center for Studies and Media was established to serve as a lofty ecclesiastical and societal voice, by providing documented information, as well as calling for mutual respect and maximizing the common denominators that we have. The development of the Christian media in the Kingdom--in great harmony with the development of the media in the Jordanian arena in general--has made it possible for news related to religious celebrations and Christian pilgrimage to be covered in an organized and orderly manner, not only at the local level, but also for global recipients from different countries of the world, who contribute to promoting religious tourism to our beloved country.


In 2013, Jordan held an international conference, and its title was clear and preemptive before the challenges facing religious plurality in the Middle East. It was titled, 'The Challenges Facing Middle East Christian". During the conference, the patron of the conference, His Majesty King Abdullah addressed the attending clerics from all over the world saying, "Protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor." In 2014, Jordan opened its doors to welcome groups of displaced people and refugees, not only for those facing political difficulties and wars, but also for the forcibly displaced from the city of Mosul and the northern towns in Iraq due to religious persecution. Consequently, Jordan was considered a hub not only for the politically displaced person or those suffering because of the wars, but also for the deeply impacted because of faith. This was a broad statement indicating that Jordan, in welcoming the Christian forcibly displaced from Mosul, was defending and upholding religious plurality in the Middle East. Consequently, Churches' halls and schools were opened for numerous individuals and families coming from their country in search of shelters as well as maintenance of security, safety and faith.


Historic visits

During the reign of King Abdullah II, several prominent Christian religious figures came to Jordan. In 2000, Pope John Paul II was a dear guest of King Abdullah II and the Jordanian people. During His Holiness’ visit, the site of the Baptism Site of Lord Jesus Christ was inaugurated, which is the leading site in religious tourism in Jordan. During the visit, a massive Holy Mass was celebrated, the first by a Pontiff in the Kingdom of Jordan and specifically at Amman International Stadium. Nine years later, delegations returned to receive Pope Benedict XVI in a visit viewed as a reinforcement of the presence of the Christian institutions in the service of the Jordanian society, during which the foundation stone of the American University in Madaba was laid. The corner stone of the Catholic Baptism Church of Lord Jesus was also jointly laid by His Holiness the Pope as well as Their Majesties the King and Queen Rania, as work is still under way to complete its construction. In 2014, Jordan welcomed Pope Francis, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the visit of Pope Paul VI.


Furthermore, there have been visits by several church leaders from various church denominations. Among them is the visit of the late Pope Shenouda III in 2005, where the foundation stone of the Monastery of St. Anthony the Great in Madaba was laid, then the visits that were undertaken by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir in 2009, and his successor Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Rai. This  also includes the visit of Russian Patriarch Kirill in 2012, when the Russian Pilgrims’ House was opened at the Baptism Site with the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2014, the heads and representatives of the Orthodox churches paid a visit which was followed by a visit by Pope Tawadros II  which coincided with the Kingdom’s hosting of the 11th General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches, whose office was opened years ago and was renovated a few days ago. In concomitant with this, the first Coptic monastery in Jordan was inaugurated, not to mention the various official visits and important conferences held in the Kingdom.


The de facto Hashemite custodianship

The Hashemite custodianship is not a verbal issue or ink on paper, but rather it is implemented on the ground. This is evident through the direct supervision of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Awqaf employees in Jerusalem, as well as through His Majesty the King’s personal contribution to the restoration of the Holy Sepulcher in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as he is the custodian of holy places in noble Jerusalem.


We can, furthermore, talk about the Council of Church leaders in Jordan, which includes the membership of the patriarchs in noble Jerusalem, in addition to their fraternal bishops in the Kingdom. Jerusalem is a broad address for Christians in the world, and even more so for Christians in Jordan, whose faith stems from Jerusalem, which included the events of salvation and Resurrection. On March 31, 2013, His Majesty King Abdullah II signed, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a document deeming His Majesty the King “the custodian and personal servant of the Holy places in Palestine.” This is of course part of the international law that everyone must respect.


What characterizes the jubilee duration for citizens and religious plurality, especially for Christians?

 We have seen the great developments which the Christian institutions in Jordan underwent, and this indicates respect for the privacy of all residents, and the freedom of worship as stipulated in the constitution, as well as the respect and appreciation of His Majesty the King for Christians in Jordan, in the  first place because they are citizens who have rights and duties, and secondly, it is for the sake of preserving the sublime religious plurality, not only in Jordan but rather in the Middle East and the entire world.


In light of the fact the plurality in our region has been regrettably subjected to several shocks recently, His Majesty the King led from Amman an open, correct, and healthy movement to use religion in making peace and in spreading a culture of encounter. He was the greatest defender of the bright Christian presence in the Arab region, which contains wonderful ancient and deep-rooted Jordanian mosaic and the mosaic of Jordanian people who constitute harmony,  good cooperation, and interaction between the various religious shades.


From this premise, I recall the address of His Majesty King Abdullah II during welcoming the participants in “The Challenges Facing Arab Christians” conference, which convened in September 13, 2013, when His Majesty said: "We are proud that Jordan constitutes a unique model of coexistence and fraternity between Muslims and Christians. We also believe that the protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor. Arab Christians have played a key role in building Arab societies, and in defending the just causes of our nation."


Proceeding with Abdullah, hand-in-hand...

In 2014, shortly before Pope Francis’ visit to Jordan, Italian journalist Gianni Valenti, a veteran journalist who works in several widely circulated Italian newspapers, said that there are two options or trends led by King Abdullah II Ibn Al-Hussein. The first one is: “Defending the true image of Islam, and the second is to defend the Arab Christian identity.” I find in this regard that these two choices have characterized the quarter century that we celebrate as one extended family, under the watchful eye and care of the Almighty God, and under the wise rule of His Majesty King Abdullah II.


His Majesty the King, may God protect him, led an openness, a correct, and a healthy movement to manipulate religion in global peace-making. Thus, His Majesty the King was awarded the 2018 Templeton International Prize for Interfaith Dialogue which I view as a culmination of 20 years of this painstaking, serious and persistent work in order to proclaim sound religion and to unite humanity in the proper use of religion, because terrorism was never a war between religions, but rather a heinous war against the entire humanity. His Majesty also received the Pope John Paul II Award in 2005, being the first to receive it after its establishment following the death of the saint Pope, who visited us in 2000, and was received by the young king at the time. In 2019, he was awarded the Assisi Lamp of Peace Award in Italy and in 2022 he was awarded the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi. In the same year, he was awarded the Path to Peace Award, which the Vatican Mission to the United Nations awards to distinguished people on the path of dialogue. A delegation from the Council of Churches accompanied him every time he went to receive the award.


The Followers of religions are still athirst for peace

Yes, the skilled captain, His Majesty King Abdullah II, has guided the Jordanian ship to the shores of safety and stability, as he realized since the early years of his rule the necessity of adhering to the values ​​of religions in love of God and love of neighbor. The issue of peace remains the greatest thirst of His Majesty, of the Jordanians, and of the true peacemakers.


The Jordanian and Palestinian Churches definitely adhere to the option of peace based on justice, while condemning killing and forcible displacement, while supporting the quest of giving the Palestinian people their right to independence and comfort after long years of hardship. The last months have been characterized by the persistent and strenuous efforts made by His Majesty the King to eliminate the injustice incurred on our people in Gaza, and to deliver aid to the afflicted. He reputedly and incessantly calls for two things, namely an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the necessity of finding a radical solution to the Palestinian issue on the principle of a two-state solution, and for Jerusalem to be the capital of the Palestinian state. This is what the Churches concur with His Majesty, as is the case in several meetings, especially in the visit of His Majesty the King to the Holy See in early May 2024, and his 7th meeting with Pope Francis as well the emphasis on these Jordanian, Islamic and Christian constants. The Churches in Jordan lifted up prayers, lit candles for peace, and delivered aid through the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization. His Beatitude Cardinal Pierbattista, Patriarch of Jerusalem and Amman, was the first to visit Gaza. He spent three days with those seeking refuge in the Church of the Holy Family and the Church of Saint Porphyrius. 


I recall in this regard that parish priest of Gaza Fr. Yousef Sa'id who asked me before Christmas 2023 to convey his greetings to His Majesty the King, so I took advantage of the opportunity to participate in the meeting that brought together His Majesty with the heads of churches and Islamic leaders, to convey his personal greetings to His Majesty, thanking him on behalf of Fr. Yousef and his parishioners in Gaza who insisted that the bread they were eating in church was Jordanian. Then, His Majesty squeezed my hand and said: “Goodness still lies ahead.”


May God protect His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al-Hussein and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah, preserve our dear homeland, preserve our national unity, and preserve religious plurality in the Middle East and in the entire world. Best wishes go to the Christians and Muslims of Jordan to enjoy goodness and harmony under the patronage of His Majesty the King in his happy jubilee.