Story and photos by Samantha Laine
AMMAN, Jordan – Muna Sacca, 59, knelt at the front of Saints Peter and Paul Church, the oldest cathedral in Amman. She closed her eyes as her voice rose and fell with the rhythm of the Roman Catholic litany. Scattered around Sacca were 25 other Arab Christians on this recent Sunday, all praying, singing and raising their hands to their God.
Sacca and the rest of her congregation are part of the 220,000 who are practicing Christians in this country of 6.5 million. While Jordan’s overall population has grown almost 1,400 percent in the last 60 years, the proportion of Arab Christians to Muslims has dropped from 12 percent to 3.5 percent in that time.
“Since the very beginning of Jesus, [my family] was Christian,” Sacca, a resident of Amman, said. “Jesus came from our country, not from Europe or America. It is something difficult to see Christians run away.”
All across the Middle East, there are reports of a diminishing proportion of Christians to the overall population. The reason for the emigration, experts say, is a mix of Christians searching for better cultural equality, economic opportunity and safety. Last month, Jordanian Prince Hassan Ibn Talal called for an Arab Social Charter – which is a social contract between the government and the general public – to address issues of human rights and equality in the Arab world, which included a directive to make the region more hospitable to Christians.
And in the past month, the Arab Thought Forum, a think tank based in Amman whose goal is to identify and solve problems in the Arab world, has hosted two conferences to discuss how dialogue can improve between Muslims and Christians. Because the Arab Christian population is a minority, their exodus and growing absence from the Middle East has alarmed religious and government leaders.
Kamel Abu Jaber is among them. Last year, the director of the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies and Jordan’s former minister of foreign affairs, visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the professed site of Jesus’ resurrection. During his five-day stay there, Abu Jaber saw no other Arab Christians.
“Christianity was born here. When there’s no one to light the candle in Palestine, that is a very abnormal thing,” Abu Jaber said, adding that, as a point of reference, there are more Christian Palestinians today in the U.S. than in the immediate region.
In some countries such as Syria and Iraq, there is a legitimate serious threat to Christians’s safety, a factor contributing to the exodus of Arab Christians from those regions. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, about 750,000 Christians have reportedly fled there as a result of sustained attacks on their churches.
However, Abu Jaber said, other parts of the Arab world don’t pose any specific danger to Christians. They live in as much peace as their Muslim counterparts. And actually, the reason they’re leaving is more a reflection of their desire to find a home with better economic opportunity and more wealth.
Elsadig B. Elfaqih, the secretary general of the Arab Thought Forum, said that typically, Christians are part of the more affluent class in the Middle East. They are generally better educated, have a higher financial status and are well represented in government and the military.
“If you are better here, you will look for even better elsewhere. And you’ll have the means to do so,” he said. Elfaqih believes that it is the culture, rather than the legal system, that contributes to Arab Christians feeling like a minority in a predominantly Islamic region.
Nabil D. Haddad, executive director of The Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, the secretary general of Arab Group Against Emigration of Arab Christians and the priest of Saints Peter and Paul Church, believes Arab Christians will stop leaving when their role in society is appreciated and treated with dignity as opposed to being viewed as the minority.
“What we intend to do is move in the direction of preserving and maintaining not the existence, but the role of Arab Christians. I cannot imagine this part of the world without Christians,” Haddad said. He feels that when Arab Christians are treated with respect they will want to stay in the region.
Muna Al Naber, a member of Saints Peter and Paul church, said that in her past experience Christians and Muslims have lived together in harmony. However, Al Naber, 54, feels that as an Arab Christian, she is not treated with the same respect as her Muslim peers.
“In the last 12 or 15 years, I have seen the Muslims’ [attitude] about Christians change,” Al Naber said. For example, she has felt pressure to conform to Islamic practices, such as wearing a hijab. When she does not, she said Muslims have told her, “My God will kill you.” Al Naber, along with other Arab Christians, wants not only the freedom to practice Christianity but also a general acceptance of her religion in a primarily Islamic culture.
There’s hope for that: Elfaqih believes that even though the Arab Social Charter does not exclusively address Christian adversity, it will have a great impact on making Christians feel comfortable staying in the Middle East. The charter promotes the idea that everyone is equal, regardless of his or her religion.
“We have to accept and respect our differences,” Elfaqih said.