The Jordan River winds through the desert scrub like a muddy drainage ditch. Still, the tourists take their pictures. They reach down to touch the water. A man stands waist deep in the dark current, trembling with emotion, and is baptized as hymns are softly sung.
On the Jordanian side of the river archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of five separate Byzantine churches, evidence that early Christians considered this to be the place where John the Baptizer baptized Jesus—Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Another site on the Israeli-occupied West Bank competes for that claim as well as tourist dollars. Prior to a 1994 treaty between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, both sides of the river were militarized zones. Now the concertina wire, gun emplacements, and thousands of land mines have been removed.
“If we can have peace here, we can have peace not only in this region but throughout the world,” says Rustom Mkhjian, chief engineer at the baptism site and an Armenian Christian. “Peace doesn’t have to wait for future generations. It can be ours today.”
For centuries Jordan has been the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa, a place where cultures and faiths come together. Today, this moderate Arab nation serves as a nexus for interfaith conversations among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Several interfaith organizations are active in Jordan. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has sponsored conferences, published articles, and given speeches on the need for peaceful coexistence among people of different cultures and faiths, particularly in the Middle East.
The Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies—founded in 1994 in Amman, Jordan as a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization—serves as a critical forum for preserving religious and cultural diversity. The Institute organizes conferences, seminars, and other events that bring together a diverse mix of scholars and decision makers from throughout the world. It publishes resources in both English and Arabic, highlighting areas of convergence and cooperation between cultures and religious traditions, particularly Islam and Christianity.
The Institute’s director, Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah, says education is vital for fostering greater acceptance and respect of people of other faiths. “As a Muslim, I need to understand what it means to be a Muslim. But I also need to understand what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be Jewish, and probably beyond that,” he says. “It enriches my own faith when I understand other faiths.”
A Common Word Between Us
In the fall of 2007, an open letter to the Christian world, “A Common Word Between Us,” was published by the Jordanian Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought and was signed by 138 Islamic scholars, clerics, and intellectuals from a variety of nations and representing a cross-section of Islamic thought. The list of signatories has since more than doubled.
Addressed to Pope Benedict XVI, the heads of other Christian churches, and all Christian communities, the letter describes what is central to both the Muslim and Christian faiths—love of God and love of neighbor. The official website for “A Common Word Between Us” states: “Rather than engage in polemic, the signatories have adopted the traditional and mainstream Islamic position of respecting the Christian scripture and calling Christians to be more, not less, faithful to it.”
More than sixty Christian churches and religious organizations around the world have now published responses affirming the letter’s message and calling for increased contact and dialogue between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
In July of 2008, following his first visit to the Vatican, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah sponsored an international conference on religious liberty. Ironically, because of resistance to interfaith discussions within the kingdom from fundamentalist forces, the conference was held in Madrid. That same month a conference at Yale University brought together more than 150 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders to discuss the commonalities among the Abrahamic faiths. The conference was cohosted by Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad and was designed to kick off a series of planned interfaith events occurring around the world over the next two years. Collectively, these events are known as the “Common Word” process.
Christians in the Holy Land
Father Nabil Haddad is executive director of the Jordan Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Amman that is devoted to promoting peaceful coexistence among the faiths around the world. A Melkite Catholic priest, Father Nabil is a charismatic proponent for peace and understanding among the faiths, speaking regularly at conferences and to the media.
“People sometimes ask me when did I become a Christian,” he says, smiling and grasping the large crucifix around his neck. “I tell them I have been a Christian for two thousand years! Christianity was here for seven centuries before Islam arrived.”
Arab Christians are a minority in Jordan, representing less than 2 percent of the population, which is 98 percent Muslim. Christians are free to practice the religion into which they were born. Under Islamic law, Muslims are not permitted to convert to another religion. Christians peacefully coexist with Muslims at all levels of Jordanian society, and centuries-old Christian churches are found throughout the country.
The story is different in other parts of the Muslim world. Most of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country. In Lebanon sectarian violence has segregated the country’s population along lines of faith and clan. Saudi Arabia still confiscates Bibles at its borders and forbids the practice of any religion but Islam. Qatar last year permitted the construction of its first Christian church but forbid any display of a cross outside the church building. Genocide goes on in Darfur.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the world has sought solutions to combat religious extremism and terrorism. Father Nabil argues that while the government of the United States has had economic, military, and communication strategies to foster peace in the Middle East, it has lacked a local cultural strategy. “The best way to reach out to the Arab world and the Muslim world is not through your political ambassadors, information centers, or U.S. economic aid alone,” he says. “You need to mobilize your friends, the Arab Christians. I know how to present Christianity to Islam, and I know Islam because it is a part of my culture.” He adds that moderate countries like Jordan need the recognition and encouragement of the West to help ensure that moderation is rewarded over extremism.
Bridges of Understanding
The JICRC regularly hosts Western groups visiting Jordan. Last year it also brought imams from Jordan, Egypt, and Syria to the United States. The delegation of imams met with average Americans. They stayed in people’s homes, broke bread with their host families, and attended Christian and Jewish worship services.
Upon returning to Jordan, Father Nabil witnessed one of the imams give a sermon to 3,000 Muslims at his mosque, where he praised the Americans “as his brothers and sisters.” Each of the imams agreed to speak to ten different audiences about their visit to America, multiplying the trip’s impact.
“They saw firsthand that love of God and love of neighbor is common to both Christian and Muslim,” says Father Nabil. “What is called ‘interfaith dialogue’ does not exist. By that I mean the dialogue between doctrines. Doctrines are very static. They don’t change. My lord Jesus Christ was crucified. But Muslims don’t believe that Jesus, as a prophet, was crucified.”
Dr. Hamdi Murad, a Muslim scholar and JICRC trustee, describes Christians and
Muslims as “brothers and sisters” in the same human family who have grown too far apart and now must work hard to find common ground.
“When we talk about the different religions in this world, we should believe that they are branches for the main religion, under God,” says Murad. He shares his hope that Jordan’s example of peace and tolerance between Christians and Muslims might inspire all people, of all faiths, around the world “to open our minds and hearts and spirits to live together as one human family under God.”
Each of the Abrahamic faiths lays claim to Abraham, says Father Nabil. “We should not compete in monopolizing Abraham. We should compete in showing our love for Abraham by loving each other as the children of Abraham,” he says. “If he could visit us today, Abraham would say we are not being very Abrahamic. That is why we have to work together.”
Grassroots Interfaith Relations
William Sachs is the director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation, housed at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Sachs has been to Jordan several times and has met all of the interfaith leaders discussed in this article. While hopeful that the “Common Word” process will advance interfaith relations, he is eager to take it to the grassroots level here in the United States. The Center is now pursuing ways to equip people to launch interfaith relations in their own communities.
“Pick any American metropolitan area of any size and you can bet that you have a Muslim population,” Sachs says, adding that these populations are likely growing due to immigration and are often highly educated.
Research among Episcopal lay leaders shows that while there is a broad interest in finding ways to relate to Muslims in the local community, few congregations have done anything with local Muslims. Of the 10 percent of congregations that have done something, few have progressed beyond the door opener of inviting in a Muslim guest speaker. “The vast majority don’t know what to do,” says Sachs. “They really need guidance.”
One of the challenges for many Protestant congregations that have a history of thinking about engagement in terms of writing checks or providing food and clothing to the needy is to realize that the local Muslim community should be engaged as peers, suggests Sachs. Parishioners from St. Stephens meet monthly with local Muslims to build interfaith understanding. Recently this interfaith group came together to work on the construction of a local Habitat for Humanity house. “The value of simply spending time together hammering nails and eating together cannot be underestimated,” says Sachs.
To find out if Muslims in your own community are also interested in interfaith relations, his advice is to go ask them. “In my experience, Muslim communities are eager to prove that they are people of profound faith and that they are good citizens.”
Bringing local Christians and Muslims together helps break down stereotypes and clear up misconceptions. “Some people romanticize Islam, but far more people vilify Islam,” Sachs says. “At the end of the day, what is the congregation’s role in making its local community a place where understanding and collaboration triumph over alienation and suspicion?”
Interfaith Organizations in Jordan
- The Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (www.riifs.org) was founded in 1994 in Amman under the patronage of Prince El Hassan bin Talal, brother of Jordan’s late King Hussein. It provides a venue in the Arab world for the interdisciplinary study and rational discussion of religion and religious issues, with particular reference to Christianity in Arab and Islamic society.
- The Jordan Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (www.coexistencejordan.org), in Amman, Jordan, is devoted to promoting peaceful coexistence among the faiths around the world. The Center uses research, dialogue, and practical initiatives to promote values of peaceful interfaith coexistence, particularly in the Middle East.
- The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought is an international Islamic nongovernmental, independent institute headquartered in Amman. It published A Common Word Between Us (www.acommonword.com) — a statement to the world’s Christian leaders from moderate Muslim scholars — and the Amman message, a declaration in support of moderate Islam (www.aalalbayt.org).
- The Center for Interfaith Reconciliation (www.saintstephensrichmond.net/CenterForReconciliation.htm) is based in Richmond, Virginia and active in Jordan through its network of contacts. The Center pursues reconciliation through education and immersion events that provide firsthand glimpses of Muslim life and which extend to dialogue and collaboration on projects of mutual interest.
About David Pratt
David Pratt is the Alban Institute’s director of marketing and has served in that capacity since 2005. He recently returned from a week-long trip to Jordan, where he met with officials from various interfaith organizations and toured major historical sites. His experiences there inspired and informed his article in this issue of Congregations. David has also published short fiction and articles for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/prattman and on the Alban Roundtable blog at www.albanroundtable.org .