A Christian’s life in a Muslim land: “Ignorance is our biggest enemy”

Story by Michele Richinick // Photos by Catherine Strong

AMMAN, Jordan – A small, gold crucifix hangs from Yazan Khoury’s neck, usually tucked inside his shirt. As a Roman Catholic Jordanian raised in a predominantly Muslim country, Khoury said he prefers not to draw attention to himself in public.

Though Yazan Khoury, 25, of Amman, normally hides his crucifix necklace inside his shirt, he said he feels safe living in Jordan as a Christian.

“If I wear the necklace [in view] and walk in the street, I may get a few stares, but it’s OK, nothing else,” said Khoury, 25, of Amman, after Mass at St. Mary of Nazareth on a recent Sunday. “If you wear your cross on the outside of your shirt, you make [yourself] secluded. If you try to be open that you’re Christian in a group of Muslims, you make it secluded.”

About 95 percent of Jordan’s 6 million people are Muslim, 3 percent are Christian and 2 percent are categorized as “other,” said Kevin O’Connell, the Jesuit pastor of the English-Language Catholic Parish in Amman. About 180,000 to 200,000 native Christians live in the country, excluding foreigners who aren’t married into Jordanian families. Of the natives, about 95,000 are orthodox Christian, 90,000 are Catholic and the remaining 15,000 are Protestant.

“From day to day life, I’ve never felt any discrimination between Christians and Muslims. I don’t think the king would allow that,” said Rana Sabbagh, a Christian and 23-year print journalist and columnist, from the regional office in Amman for the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, or ARIJ. “Here, Christians are privileged. There’s not a lack of tolerance, but ignorance. Ignorance is our biggest enemy.”

Christianity is recognized as an official religion by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but it is more acceptable in certain areas of the country, such as Amman.

“Jordan is much easier for Christian natives and foreigners to live in than other countries in the area,” O’Connell said from his office at the Jesuit Center. “Certainly in Amman, the Catholic population is integrated completely with the Muslim population.”

To ensure adequate representation, Jordan reserves a number of parliamentary seats for the country’s minority populations. Of the 71 seats for Muslim deputies, six are reserved for Bedouins and three for Circassians and Chechens. The remaining nine seats go to Christian deputies, according to the website for the Office of King Hussein I.

“For ordinary things, [Christians] are not anyway inhibited. There aren’t blow-ups from the Muslim population at churches or anything like that,” said O’Connell, who is originally from Boston and has lived in Amman for 15 years. “Kids might throw stones at [Christian] statues, but kids do that anyway. We have a statue out front [of the Jesuit Center], and it doesn’t seem to bother anybody.”

Pope Benedict XVI gave this mosaic as a gift to Jordanian King Abdullah II in 2009 to express peace, brotherhood and love between Christians and Muslims. It is located outside the King Hussein Mosque in downtown Amman.

The majority of the Christian population exists in the western edge of the country in and around Amman, O’Connell said. About 8 percent to 10 percent of Amman’s native and foreign population is Christian. But in some areas, such as Petra, there are no churches at all.

“You find people who are open-minded and those who are close-minded. Those who go to Europe and America are more open-minded,” Khoury said. “Some [Muslim] people aren’t comfortable when we talk [about Christianity]. They ask questions sometimes, but they’re not open to hear your point of view too much.”

Christians are underrepresented in Jordan, but most rich families are Christian, said Sabbagh, who is the executive director of ARIJ, before adding that most of her column readers aren’t aware of her Christianity. “And I like that. I’m really glad my dad gave me an Arab name.”

Many of the high-ranking police officers in the capital city are Christian, said John Miedreich, a senior liaison office for the New York City Police Department in Amman.

“Eventually, you find it interesting to be a minority,” Khoury said. “It makes you more into your religion. It may bring you to the church, because if you feel like you’re secluded, there is no one else than Jesus to go to. If you want to know why you’re different, you should take hold of it, you shouldn’t leave it.”

Since the majority of Jordan’s churches are small and have limited monetary resources and staff, they are locked when services aren’t in progress, O’Connell said. The common belief is that the churches might be vulnerable unless they are guarded because they don’t have staff members to stay at the buildings each day.

But on Friday and Sunday when there is morning and afternoon Mass, they are open to the public. Church bells ring from towers. In fact, some churches electronically program the bells to ring every hour. Sometimes churches have loud speakers to project the liturgy into neighborhoods and streets for people nearby to hear, O’Connell said.

“I think it’s pretty tolerant. I have no problem disclosing I am Christian here,” said Miedreich, who has lived in Amman for two months. “From what I see, it seems they accept multi-religions, which is very remarkable in this region [of the world].”

Though integrated in the public life, different religions legally are handled separately from one another. There are nine different Christian courts that deal with 17 denominations, said Asma Khader, a Christian and founder of Sisterhood Is Global Institute.

In Jordan, religious law allows Muslim men to marry Christian women, but children are required to be Muslim, O’Connell said. A Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman unless he converts to Islam. To become a Muslim, an individual needs to pronounce the intention with conviction and an understanding of its meaning. The pronunciation can be completed alone or in the presence of others.

“These are the sorts of contention that come when there is interaction between Muslims and Christians,” O’Connell said. “It can lead to inter-family strife, especially in areas outside the city.”

Intermarriage families do exist, but “it’s difficult,” said Shaden Abdulrahman, a Muslim and website manager for ARIJ.

“We still have a problem with being exposed to the Christian culture of the West,” Abdulrahman said. “My mom doesn’t enjoy seeing me read stories written by Christian authors.”

Despite the religious tolerance in the country, limited dialogue exists between most Muslims and Christians, O’Connell said.

“Educated Muslims tend to have a safe dialogue and are supportive of Christianity, but you don’t get into detailed conversation about theology very often,” he said. “There is a situation where [Muslims] know about Christianity, but have never asked Christians about what they know. There is a need for further steps in dialogue, but they haven’t gotten too far.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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