Does Christianity have a future in the land of its birth?
By Curtis Ramsey-Lucas
In October, I participated in a religious press tour of Jordan. Our group of writers, bloggers and editors visited ancient and biblical sites throughout the country and met with Jordanian officials and religious leaders, including leaders of the Jordan Baptist Convention.
An association of more than 20 congregations and ministries ranging in size from 20 to more than 200 members, the Jordan Baptist Convention is a small but dynamic part of the Christian population of Jordan, which numbers between 3 percent and 4 percent of the population as a whole.
According to Jordan’s Department of Statistics, the country’s population increased by nearly 87 percent in the past decade. The majority of that growth came from an influx of refugees principally from Iraq and Syria.
The actual number of Syrian refugees in the country is in dispute. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees, which counts only registered refugees, says that more than 657,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Mohammad Momani, Jordan’s minister for State Media Affairs, says the overall figure is closer to 1.3 million, representing almost 20 percent of the country’s population.
Like the country itself, Baptists in Jordan have played an outsized role in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. They provide clothing, food, medical care, trauma counseling and vocational training. They have established schools for refugee children and help winterize refugee camps. Baptists operate a clinic that provides medical care to 2,500 individuals each month, and they have provided trauma counseling to more than 3,000 Syrian women.
Many Syrian refugees are Christian, but the majority with which Baptists work are Muslim.
“They are our neighbors, and we love them in the name of Christ,” said the Rev. Dr. Nabeeh Abbassi, a council member of the Jordan Baptist Convention. “We seek to be salt and light in community, not salt in the salt shaker of the church.”
Still, Baptists in Jordan are not sanguine about the future of Christianity in the place of its birth. The Syrian refugee crisis has stretched the country’s resources. A continuing concern is that further conflict in the region could breed instability, even in Jordan.
The persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate that the fate of Christianity in the region hangs in the balance. In testimony before a House subcommittee, former Congressman Frank Wolf stated that without a more robust response from the United States to the situation in Iraq and Syria, “We will see the end of Christianity in Iraq in a few short years and a loss of religious and ethnic diversity throughout the region.”
This loss, Wolf continued, “could result in further destabilization, violent extremism and terrorism across the Middle East.”
In recent years, the Christian population in Iraq and Syria has declined precipitously. According to a report by Open Doors, the number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from between 1.4 million to 2 million in the 1990s to between 250,000 to 200,000 today. Similarly, estimates suggest that as many as half the Christians in Syria have fled the country.
In a speech at In Defense of Christians’ annual solidarity dinner Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence echoed these concerns.
“In the mountains of Syria, the valleys of Lebanon, on the plains of Nineveh, the plateaus of Armenia, on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, the delta of the Nile, the fathers and mothers of our faith planted seeds of belief,” Pence said. “They’ve blossomed and borne fruit ever since. But now that garden of faith, generations in the making, is under threat. It’s under threat of persecution and mistreatment. Many of the Christian communities that first embraced the message of Christ are today the targets of unspeakable acts of violence and atrocity.”
Pence, who plans to travel to Israel and Egypt in late December, said that the United States will begin to financially aid persecuted Christians and other minorities via the U.S. Agency for International Development, faith-based groups and private organizations, rather than by funneling funds through the United Nations.
Does Christianity have a future in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East? At the end of my time in Jordan, I put this question to Father Nabil Haddad, a Greek Catholic (Melkite) priest and founder and executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman. He noted the challenges Christianity faces in the region but was hopeful regarding its prospects.
“Arab Christians have been here from the very beginning,” he said. “We have been here for two thousand years. We are not going anywhere.”
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.