Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Salt and leaven in the Holy Land

Can Christians help Mideast peace? If so, is humility the starting place?

Where the world hangs in balance, few Christians remain. Yet Christians have been in that balance for a long time. As leaven, as salt, Christians may yet play a role.

Christian numbers are diminishing in the tense Mideast; Arab Christians departing for safer places. Yet remaining Christians have a long history with Muslims and Jews. “We have been living for years and centuries with each other,” says the Rev. Samer Azar, pastor of the only Lutheran church in Jordan.

Finding Christians among Muslims takes visitors by surprise. When Father Nabil Haddad of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman spoke at Iowa State University, someone innocently asked how long he had been a Christian. Father Haddad responded: “Two thousand years!” Tourists seeking their faith roots in the Mideast may find Christians who have been there all along. Wafa Goussous of Amman is a Greek Orthodox Christian who directs refugee services for the Middle East Council of Churches. “I am here before you,” she notes matter-of-factly.

Indeed, Jordan is arguably the first Christian mission. Remember the demoniac? Jesus drove out the man’s legion of demons on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, now part of Israel. The healed demoniac wanted to go with Jesus — but was sent away to tell “how much the Lord has done for you.” The man told his story in the Decapolis, says Mark 5. Cities of the ancient Decapolis are mainly in Jordan — including Jerash, Umm Qais, and the capital Amman, known in antiquity as Philadelphia — brotherly love.

Moreover, Jordan now claims the earliest Christian church, in the port city of Aqaba on the Red Sea — though neighboring Israel and Syria claim the earliest such churches as well.

Jordan is not quite the size of Indiana, its desert without oil and few mineral resources. Most of its 6 million residents live in cities, including the capital Amman. Six percent are Christians. The jobless rate is officially 15 percent but likely much higher. Wars have brought wave after wave of refugees, including up to one million from Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

What is the role of Christians in Mideast peace? Prince Hassan, uncle of King Abdullah and a seasoned diplomat, gave this reporter the gentlest of rebuffs when I asked. He noted that many faiths share the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. His point, I think: Christians have a role — but it is a humble role, that of one faith among many.

Is it our duty to act with righteousness, rather than speak righteously? Maybe. “It’s about doing,” says Prince Hassan, “not about saying.”

In Jordan, the peace Prince Hassan and others seek has been fleeting. During World War I, an Arab revolt succeeded against Turkish Ottoman rule, with help from the United Kingdom and military officers such as T.E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia. The British kept control, but territory east of the Jordan gained partial self-government as Transjordan in 1921 and full independence in 1946.

When Jews established the state of Israel in 1948, Jordan and other Arab countries went to war against the new nation. Jordan at first held the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but in 1967 lost those areas to Israel. Jordan now maintains an uneasy peace along its 250-mile border with the Jewish state. An Israeli military outpost looms across the narrow Jordan River at the site Jordan claims as the site of Jesus’ baptism.

Jordan is the fulcrum of the Mideast teeter-totter, and its splinter of Christians is at the heart of the balance, providing schools and other services for those in need. At the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in Amman, Muslim leaders work with Christians on understanding. “This,” says Father Haddad, “is the kind of Islam I want to live with.”

Yet the setting is complex: Muslims can’t convert and Christians can’t proselytize. Even so, a cheerful Father Haddad says he wants to be “as good as the Lord wants us to be.” Christians in Jordan, says Haddad, shouldn’t be “just a disgruntled minority,” but should work at building peace. “We do this,” he says, “because we have to.”

At Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church in Amman, the Rev. Azar says Christians can offer key services for Muslims. For example, his 300-member congregation hosts weekly workouts for Christian and Muslim women. Many Muslim women dress with great modesty, some veiling entirely. Good Shepherd’s participants include such veiled women, who have little other opportunity for physical exercise.

Pastor Azar says Christians can take firm stands on more issues facing Jordan — such as human trafficking. Jordan is a transit country and destination for forced labor from South and Southeast Asia, reports the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Web site. Jordan is also a destination for women from Eastern Europe and Morocco for prostitution.

Jordan has more sinister difficulties. Jordanian Sen. Akel Biltaji says he left a wedding celebration early on Nov. 9, 2005, after offering his seat to a friend. The friend and more than 60 others died in a coordinated suicide bombing that struck three hotels. In 2009, the FBI’s suspects in an alleged Dallas skyscraper-bombing plot are Jordanian youths.

In Jordan’s far north, the remarkable Roman remains at Umm Qais overlook the Sea of Galilee in Israel, where Jesus taught. Matthew reports that “great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.”

This is where I stand now, looking with longing at the familiar lake perhaps 10 miles away in the haze. Can Christians help bridge that vast divide? Matthew’s context is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus urges us to love our enemies. If Christians have a role in Mideast peace, it may be precisely this hard task. Love is exactly opposite what suicide killers perpetrate. Should we be surprised if Jesus had it right from the start?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Metro Lutheran contributor Marc Hequet has traveled several times to the Mideast to excavate and write. From September 25-October 3 he accompanied a media tour to Jordan paid for by the Jordan Board of Tourism, a Jordanian government agency.