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Christian Arabs in the Middle East, particularly Jordan’s Christians, have been following the faith since the time of Jesus.
In early January 2023, a statue of Jesus Christ was taken down by the Fuheis municipality in Jordan after the religious symbol created a social media uproar.
The statue, which was originally placed at the center of a street intersection, drew mixed reactions and conflicting comments with some supporting religious freedom and others deeming the placement of the statue unacceptable.
The Fuheis Youth Club had donated the statue, which was then placed in front of the organization’s headquarters. After the statue was taken down, the manager of the club reportedly declined media presence, arguing that the statue had “aesthetic value and did not affect traffic.”
Social media commenters said that the statue’s “presence is akin to reverting to paganism and idol worshipping.” Similarly, residents of Fuheis area reportedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the presence of the statue in a ‘particular location of the city,’ according to Fuheis mayor Omar Akroush.
The club owners disputed claims that the statue was merely idolatry and emphasized the importance of treating it with care as a religious symbol. Nevertheless, Akroush denied responsibility for the statue and ordered its immediate removal.
The statue was later moved to a Christian cemetery.
Fuheis is a town in the governorate of Balqa, in central Jordan. It is home to approximately 20,000 people, most of whom are Christians. Though the incident has since died down, it is the latest in a series of events to shed light on the condition of religious minorities, particularly Christians, in Jordan.
For a minority population that is underrepresented in Jordan, i.e., Jordanian Christians, the incident pushed the subject of religious freedom to the fore. However, observers point out that it is the duty of the state, especially the monarchy, to safeguard the nation’s minorities from religious conflict and discord.
Muslims make up about 93% of the population of Jordan. According to government statistics, 6% are Christian while other minorities account for 1%. With 30,000 Catholics, 20,000 Protestants, and 90,000 Greek Orthodox, Pew Research Center estimates that Jordanian Christians comprise up to just 2% of the country’s population.
Christian Arabs in the Middle East, particularly those in Jordan, have been following the faith since the time of Jesus and continue to use Syriac and Aramaic in their daily prayers and conversation.
Jordan is mentioned several times in the Bible, and Christian relics from the early centuries have been found all across the country, making Jordanians long-time adherents to the faith.
The Jordanian city of Madaba, for example, is home to a number of historic churches and works of art, including the first mosaic map of the Holy Land, discovered in 1884.
In 2008, archaeologists unearthed a site believed to be the earliest church built. In the northern part of the kingdom, in the town of Rihab, the church was discovered buried beneath the historic Saint George’s Church.
The church is believed to have been used by Christ’s followers who fled Jerusalem after the crucifixion, built between CE33 and CE70.
The country is also home to the al-Maghtas, the holy site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been baptized. Other biblical sites include Mount Nebo, where the prophet Moses is said to have been buried.
Throughout the 19th century, Christian missionaries and ecclesiastical institutions established a network of religious, educational, and social institutions. Their educational institutions, in particular, have played a key role in reconciling Muslim and Christian differences by both contributing to Jordan’s development and providing spaces for peaceful coexistence between Christian and Muslim students.
Protected by the monarchy
Maram Abi Geryes, a Christian Jordanian citizen and social observer, told Fanack that Christians are able to enjoy some freedoms as long as the monarchy protects them.
“What helps us is the presence of King Abdullah II, who views us as a ‘red line’ that must not be crossed,” Abi Geryes explained.
The monarch visited Fuheis a week after the statue incident, where he met with citizens and city representatives.
Even though the monarch did not directly address the controversy, he reiterated support for the Christian community, emphasizing the importance of peaceful coexistence.
“Racist concepts are alien to the Jordanian society and they have no place in the Kingdom,” the king was reported as saying.
Officials must take strict measures against anyone who opposes these values and promotes bigotry, the King added, noting that schools have a responsibility to bring up citizens who believe in the values of citizenship and coexistence.
“He most likely did so as a show of respect for the Christian community in the aftermath of the Fuheis controversy, as well as to demonstrate to detractors that we are guaranteed security and safety,” Abi Geryes said.
“We are not allowed to erect statues wherever we choose,” she continued. “However, some level of freedom is still afforded to communities who choose to do so, depending on where they are.”
Life as a minority
Unlike its Levantine neighbors, Jordan has avoided the terrible economic crises that have afflicted Syria and Lebanon. Nonetheless, the Levantine country is not immune to the global oil crisis; a nationwide walkout over rising fuel prices transpired in December, 2022.
Families across the country continue to suffer declining wages and high living expenses.
Iraqis who fled the US invasion in the early 2000s are Jordan’s most vulnerable Christians. The bulk of these refugees are Chaldean and Syrian Catholics, while others are members of the East Assyrian Church.
Most struggle to find work and establish themselves in their nation of refuge. And so, many of these families have resorted to financial support from religious organizations.
Palestinian Christians who fled Palestine in droves during the two Nakbas are among the most significant Christian populations of Jordan. Anwar Qumsyeh, a social observer, believes that more than half of the Christians in Amman, the capital city, are originally Palestinian.
Qumsyeh, a Palestinian Christian himself, told Fanack that because of the close-knit nature of their community, Jordanian and Palestinian Christians have little to no disparities.
The community today
Although Jordan adheres to Sharia law, Qumsyeh and Abi Geryes say that their communities enjoy freedom of religious practice.
During Christmas, both Muslims and Christians take part in the festivities. Families attend market bazars, Christmas shows, and other holiday festivals. Both observers confirm that most churches are usually guarded by security forces to ensure worshippers’ safety.
In contrast to Easter, which is not a state holiday, Christmas is the only Christian holiday that is recognized by the state, Abi Geryes said.
Qumsyeh observes that in recent years, prominent Christian tourist destinations have seen an increase in foreign visitors as a result of government and travel agency initiatives to promote Jordan as a welcoming nation.
A mass commemorating the annual pilgrimage day to the Jordan River’s eastern bank, where Christians believe Christ was baptized, was attended by thousands of Catholic Christians in early January. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, attendance had been capped at 1000 persons in 2022, according to AFP.
Additionally, a delegation from the “Coordinating Bishops for the Support of the Holy Land” met in Jordan for the first time to wrap up their yearly meeting that took place in early January.
In a released statement, the bishops emphasized that “Jordan is an integral part of the Holy Land, as evidenced by the location of the baptism of Christ and his early service on his land.”
The greatest challenge facing the Christian community is the dwindling number of individuals due to economic conditions, as Christian Jordanians choose to have fewer children, Qumsyeh stated.
He also notes a growth in interest in protecting Christian identity and culture following the emergence of paramilitary forces like the Islamic State (Daesh).
Despite their small number, Jordan’s young Christians are becoming more devoted to their religion as a result of the recent outbreak of terrorism, according to Qumsyeh. “I am confident that the Christian identity will be preserved in Jordan and the Levant as a whole.”