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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Jordan: The safe haven for Christians fleeing ISIL

Though Christians consider themselves safe in Jordan, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty as extremists wreak havoc in neighbouring countries.
Father Rifat Badr who leads his church in Naour, Jordan, has praised the government for making 'Jordanians one family'. Salh Malkawi for The National
Father Rifat Badr who leads his church in Naour, Jordan, has praised the government for making 'Jordanians one family'. Salh Malkawi for The National

AMMAN // Ammar Elias Ayoub was a taxi driver in Mosul before ISIL militants overran the city last June. He fled just days before the terror group took over, knowing that he might be killed because of his faith.

He now lives with his wife and five children in Jordan, happy to be in a country where Christians are still safe.

“Iraq will never be the same,” Mr Ayoub said, his arms clenched tightly across his chest while recounting the escape.

Amid unrest in the country, Christians have been relentlessly targeted by extremists in Iraq for a decade. They have also become targets in Syria after what began as a peaceful uprising in 2011 descended into civil war. Some Christians that fled these conflict zones ended up in Jordan, where people from various denominations of the religion live peacefully alongside the majority Muslim population.

Though Christians consider themselves safe in Jordan, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty as extremists wreak havoc in neighbouring countries.

With Jordan stepping up its role in the international coalition against ISIL, Jordanians, and especially minority groups, are aware that they could become a target for militants seeking to create instability.

“Jordan will be a target for Daesh, and they manoeuvre with many instruments,” said Atef Kawar, a Jordanian Christian parliamentarian, using an alternative name for ISIL. “All of us are targets.”

Still, despite the threat, ISIL is likely to have more difficulty finding sympathisers in Jordan than in Syria and Iraq.

“The rules and laws here don’t discriminate,” said Mr Kawar, describing the religious tolerance in Jordan. He said the main differences in Jordan were between Palestinians and Jordanians, rather than between religious groups, as people compete for jobs and government assistance.

Jordanian Christians also have strong ties to the royal family, are well represented in business, and have nine seats reserved for them in the 150 member House of Representatives.

Citing an example of why religious identity is not a primary concern for Jordanians, Mr Kawar said he did not focus on Christian rights while campaigning for office. Instead, he took up broader issues such as security and economic development, having been pushed into running by members of his clan.

That tribalism remains the bedrock of Jordanian society is another reason for Christian security, said Dr Raouf Sa’d Abujaber, a Jordanian Christian writer and researcher. The same tribes have lived in the area for thousands of years and Muslims and Christians are familiar with each other, he said.

“This area has always had this pluralism.”

While the situation was similar in Syria and Iraq before the countries were torn apart by war, he said a key difference in Jordan is that the tribes still accept the monarchy’s legitimacy.

“Many Syrians contested Hafez’s right to be president for 40 years when he is the son of someone from Latakia,” Mr Abujaber said, referring to Hefez Al Assad, the founder of the currently embattled regime in Syria.

At the same time, Jordan’s Christians have dwindled from about 20 per cent of the population in 1930 to about 5 per cent today, he said.

The main cause of this was successive migrations of Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians to Jordan as the surrounding countries descended into conflict, along with higher birth rates among Muslim families.

While some issues regarding intermarriage and conversion still exist, domestic social pressure was unlikely to make Christians leave Jordan. Most are middle and upper class and live removed from impoverished and conservative areas where residents might be less tolerant of Christians.

“Sometimes we hear in the mosques, during the Friday sermons from the sheikhs, you hear some hatred. Because of ignorance,” said Father Rifat Bader, a Catholic priest who heads a parish in Naour, a town about 15-minutes drive from downtown Amman. “Our problem is with the ignorance of some imams or sheikhs who are not knowledgeable about Christians and that Christians are friends, colleagues, and co-citizens.”

While he praised the government for making “Jordanians one family” over the last three years, he has advocated changing the words used to discuss faith in an effort to lessen perceived differences.

For instance, he no longer uses the words “dialogue” and “co-existence”. The word “coexistence” in particular, has “many translations” into Arabic that can lead to confusion, he said. Instead, he wants to focus on “the values of citizenship” with relations based on being a citizen of Jordan and the rights, obligations, and equality which it entails.

“If you talk about citizenship all these differences will die,” he said.

Other Jordanian Christians also feel the need for social change amid the threat from ISIL.

“In the last 20 years we’ve been seeing different faces … They are trying to penetrate our strong unity”, said Ramez Karadsheh, a Jordanian Christian living in Amman, commenting on the risks presented by extremists.

A restaurant owner, Mr Karadsheh said he felt no discrimination as a Christian in Jordan, but believed that ISIL was trying to create religious discord in the country.

“Jordan itself has always been a united country and this is why terrorists and gangsters like ISIL, they target Jordan because it is more liberal than any other country” in the region, he said.

He said Christians in Jordan were weighing their options as the conflict continued, but he would not move until it was the “last chance”.

ISIL was using Islam to mask a political agenda, he said. But, the militant group’s appeal was already being felt in Jordan.

Last September, a friend who is part of the Bani Sakher, a major tribe in Jordan, told him that hundreds of its members had joined ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

With poverty and unemployment major issues in Jordan, many were motivated by the salaries that the group paid, said Mr Karadsheh.

“To sit down and believe sometimes that the future of my kids is going to be under excruciating pain in religion and problems, I was and a lot of us were thinking, maybe to move,” he said.

“Actually, to diversify our businesses in the US and here. In case there’s something that happens we have a plan B in progress,” he added.

“It’s sad, I tell you, as a Jordanian.”

jvela@thenational.ae