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Jordanian church leaders say international community must do more to alleviate Iraq War-bred problems

Michael Ireland HeadshotAMMAN, JORDAN (ANS) — The international community must increase its humanitarian assistance to Iraqis displaced by the ongoing U.S.-backed war, a group of Jordanian religious and human rights leaders told a visiting delegation of U.S. Christian journalists here Nov. 4. -Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

“There has always been a refugee numbers problem for Jordan, primarily Palestinians,” said Fr. Nabil Haddad, a leading spokesman for the Greek Melkite Catholic Church and founder of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, but now it so big with the Iraqis – the equivalent of 60 million refugees arriving in the U.S. in two years time.”

According to Jerry Van Marter, writing for the Presbyterian News Service, Jordan has taken in between 500,000 and 1 million Iraqis fleeing the unrelenting violence in their country since the U.S. invasion almost four years ago. During that time, the U.S. has granted 900 visas to Iraqis.

Wafa Fawzy Goussous, director of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) office in Amman, which is the primary partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the country, said “Jordan is suffering now with a big burden. Because we have acted as a good neighbor does not absolve the international community of greater responsibility – Jordan did not create this problem.”

Van Marter writes that Sen. Aqel Biltaji, a longtime government official and official advisor to the late King Hussein and now his son, King Abdullah II, says that not only is the crush of Iraqi refugees in Jordan straining the capacity of the government, religious institutions and other non-governmental organizations to respond adequately, the larger conflict in the Middle East, exacerbated by the Iraq War and the seemingly stalled peace process in Israel-Palestine is jeopardizing Jordan’s status as “an oasis of tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect.”

“This is a sad time for us because it was the Americans who brought us education, democracy, medicine and critical thinking,” he told the group of 19 visitors here in the Jordanian capital, including this Van Marter and John Sniffen, associate editor of Presbyterians Today magazine.

“Now those doctors and teachers have been replaced by soldiers and destruction and an administration that has vetoed every United Nations resolution on behalf of the Palestinians and we have to ask, ‘Are these the same Americans?’” Biltaji asked.

Biltaji said “the piety that led thousands of Americans here to serve has been politicized, transforming prophecy into politics. It is not good for our countries, our people and the three great religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) which throughout our history have been marked by harmony and respect.”

Biltaji said that America has gone “from piety, to prophecy, to politics.” He said the US must return to that initial piety.

Nabeeh Naif Abbassi, president of the Jordan Baptist Convention, said if Christians cannot peacefully live in Jordan, then there is little hope for the minority Christian communities elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We engage in interfaith conferences annually to coordinate volunteer work by a variety of religious groups in Jordan,” he said, “and we agree that all deserve to be treated as God wants them to be treated – without regard to color and without regard to border. Jordan is a good model for tolerance, respect and openness – the closed-minded are the minority in Jordan.”

Philip Griffith, director of Habitat for Humanity in Jordan, agreed. “We have built 350 houses in five communities during the last six years,” he told the visitors. “Those buildings have involved more than 350 volunteers to date and our goal on both sides is to go beyond ideology and culture to address those in greatest need.”

Van Marter writes that as in the U.S., Habitat goes beyond giving people materials and tools to build houses to working with community-based organizations to give people tools and skills to also build their communities. That is also the primary work of the King Hussein Foundation and its executive director, Hana Mitri Shahin.

Shahin, a Christian who has been married to a Muslim man for 23 years, leads seven foundation programs that promote sustainable development, women’s empowerment, poverty eradication, education, leadership development and the extension of democracy in her country.

Those efforts are increasingly directed at Jordanian and Iraqi women in Jordan. “Our work is capacity-building – to enlarge the ability to move away from charity and toward self-development by equipping women with the right skills to create self-sustaining communities.”

The foundation, she said, is placing a huge emphasis on creating community centers in major Jordanian cities that offer simple health care, individual and family trauma care, and work and income-generation skills.

Van Marter says those efforts appear to be paying off. Nearly 40 percent of the micro-finance loans given by the foundation now go to women and the number of women running in the current parliamentary elections has quintupled since the last national elections in 2004, signs that the economic and political power of women are growing.

“But we still have far to go,” Shahin said. “The unemployment rate for women in 26 percent, compared with 12 percent overall in Jordan.”

As in all countries striving to improve conditions, education is key, said Wafa Goussous, Director of the Middle East Council of Churches in Jordan, noting that Jordan has the highest literacy rate in the Middle East, except Israel. There, too, the press of sheer numbers of displaced Iraqis is acutely felt by the churches, whose primary mission has always been education.

“There are 250,000 Iraqi students now in Jordan,” Goussous said. “Officially, 50,000 of them have been admitted to public schools so you see there still is a tremendous need that we are trying to address.”

The long-term stability of Jordan is at stake, Haddad added. “Health and education have always been the priorities of the churches in Jordan,” he said. “Educationally we have two goals – expose students to non-Arab cultures which promotes tolerance and respect and build good citizenship as well as education.”

This Jordanian model, heavily promoted by the churches, can be a beacon to the rest of the Middle East and to the world, Abbassi said. “It is an excellent model because we can see that education with character-building is very important and very effective in Jordan.

Still, despite the spirit of openness, tolerance and interfaith cooperation that characterizes religious life in Jordan, Van Marter says internal and external forces are threatening the fragile minority Christian community here. Christians are leaving the Middle East in growing numbers, leaving churches caught in a tightening vise of shrinking resources and growing needs.

Goussous said the Bush administration “has made our job as Christians very difficult in a Muslim region. The U.S. government needs to revise its message as a Christian nation in the world because, rightly or wrongly, the U.S. represents Christianity in the world.

“And that is hurting us,” Goussous said.

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Article by Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station. His weblog appears at: Michael’s Wor(l)d BLOG

© Assist News Service – copied with written/republish permission cited at the bottom of the above article, courtesy in part by Gospel for Asia. GFA’s Bridge of Hope program is designed to rescue thousands of children in Asia from a life of poverty and hopelessness by giving them an education and introducing them to the love of Christ. For only $28 a month, you can cover the cost of one child’s tuition, books, uniforms, one or two meals a day and a yearly medical checkup—and your child, his family and community will hear the Gospel as a result. To learn more about Gospel for Asia’s Bridge of Hope program, visit our website at www.gfa.org/child or call 1-800-WIN-ASIA (United States) or 1-888-WIN-ASIA (Canada).

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