Tiny Jordan’s outsize role fostering interfaith understanding

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Mention religion in the Middle East and what often leaps to mind is conflict: Muslim vs. Jew, Sunni vs. Shiite. But from Jordan, a religious crossroads, comes a forceful call for interfaith harmony.

Courtesy of the Royal Hashemite Court/File
Jordan’s King Abdullah (center l.) and Pope Francis (center r.) visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site on the Jordanian banks where many believe Jesus was baptized, on May 24, 2014. King Abdullah was awarded the 2018 Templeton Prize for the country’s interfaith work, becoming only the second Muslim recipient of an award previously granted to the Dalai Llama and Mother Theresa.

Every month, Christians and Muslims from Milan to Mecca, Kansas to Kuala Lumpur find common ground in an unusual place: a desert country the size of Maine surrounded by war zones.

In Jordan, a royal family recognized as descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and a citizenry of Christians and Muslims who have lived side by side for centuries, have been playing an outsized role in fostering dialogue and common understanding among the world’s faiths.

Participants and observers say Jordan’s interfaith drive is not political expediency or a PR stunt; rather it is the continuation of a unique homegrown tradition of celebrating faiths’ common bonds and values that the kingdom has taken to the world stage as an answer to growing polarization and sectarianism.

Jordan’s first call to action was in the wake of 9/11 and the sectarian violence and terrorism triggered by the Iraq War next door.

King Abdullah crafted and promoted a response – the Amman Message, a document clarifying the central tenets of Islam, rejecting terrorism, extremism, and violence, and denouncing the practice of declaring other Muslims as “apostates.”

Jordan’s decade and a half of interfaith activism is being recognized: Last month King Abdullah was awarded the 2018 Templeton Prize for the country’s interfaith work, becoming only the second Muslim recipient of an award previously granted to the Dalai Llama and Mother Theresa.

Upon receiving the prize, the king said he is merely the messenger.

“Everything you honor me for simply carries onward what Jordanian have always done, and how Jordanians have always lived – in mutual kindness, harmony, and brotherhood,” he said.

Unique composition

At first glance Jordan, a desert country of 6.5 million, 97 percent Sunni Muslim and around 3 percent Christian, is not the most obvious candidate for a global epicenter of interfaith dialogue.

But the kingdom, which links the Levant with the Gulf Arab countries, has been the crossroads of Abrahamic faiths and prophets; Abraham is said to have crossed Jordan, as did Muhammad, while Jesus is believed to have been baptized in the Jordan River.

Courtesy of the Royal Hashemite Court/File
Jordan’s King Abdullah presents the King Abdullah II World Interfaith Harmony Week Prize to several recipients from across the world at the Husseniya Palace in Amman, Jordan, on April 30, 2017.

This legacy has left behind mixed communities of Christians and Muslims who have lived and celebrated together for centuries.

“Jordan has created space for different communities and religious groups to gather without any trouble, and this has been an integral part in shaping the modern Jordan,” says Daoud Kuttab, a journalist and observer based in Amman.

Under Jordan’s social mix, Christians and Muslims here say there are no truly segregated communities, and that they are united by a common culture where community, not sect, comes first.

Common values are celebrated while differences in beliefs are acknowledged and respected.

“The philosophy of our model isn’t found at universities, research centers, or think-tanks – you find it in our villages, neighborhoods, and homes,” says Father Nabil Haddad, a Melkite Catholic priest and co-founder of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center. “That is what makes Jordan different.”

Polarization and clashes among Muslims and between the Christian and Muslim world at the turn of the 21st century led Jordanians and their leaders to go one step further: take their model global.

With the Hashemite monarchy presenting the Amman Message after 9/11, 500 Islamic leaders signed on, agreeing on clear guidelines on the authority to issue fatwas, or religious edicts, and denouncing intra-Muslim violence and acts of terror.

For the first time in 1,000 years, the greater Muslim community, or Islamic umma, had spoken in unison over the message of Islam.

In 2005, the publication of Danish cartoons satirizing Muhammad had inflamed the Muslim world; in September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI quoted, and seemingly endorsed, an address by a Byzantine emperor admonishing the Muslim prophet for promoting “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

‘A Common Word’

With the Christian and Islamic worlds on a collision course, and negative perceptions of Islam spread by violent terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, the Hashemites once again, led by King Abdullah, responded, penning an open letter from Islamic leaders to church leaders.

This October 2007 letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” calls for peace and love between the world’s two largest faiths on the common values of “love of God” and “love thy neighbor” – Biblical injunctions that underpin the centuries-old interfaith model in Jordan.

Many Christian thinkers and theologians who received the message say it was the first time they carefully considered the bonds between Christianity and Islam.

“Before reading this document, if you asked even educated people including me, whether the love of God and the love of neighbor is central to Islam, I would have said no,” says Miroslav Volf, a Protestant theologian and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, one of the first to endorse and pen a response to the letter. “ ‘A Common Word’ was an eye-opener.”

The extended hand of interfaith fellowship reaches beyond Christians and Muslims; Jewish leaders along with Druze and Bahai take part in Jordanian initiatives.

Hundreds of Christian leaders and Jewish figures have since signed “A Common Word” – the chief rabbis of Israel issued a communique with the Archbishop of Canterbury endorsing the letter – responding with their own perspective on the bonds between the three Abrahamic faiths, and launching a global dialogue that continues to this day.

Jordan’s interfaith centers also have produced publications on prominent Arab Christians and the bonds between Judaism and Islam, and have been translating Jewish texts and the writings of prominent Jewish theologians into Arabic, such as the works of Moses ben Maimon, a renowned Sephardic Jewish scholar from Cordoba – then Muslim Andalusia.

“A Common Word” led Professor Volf to write a book on the Christian view of “Allah,” concluding that Christians and Muslims indeed refer to and worship the same god.

‘We are all people of the book’

In 2010, the country pushed for the establishment of the United Nations’ World Interfaith Harmony Week. Interfaith harmony became more than a talking point; it became Jordanian foreign policy. At home, interfaith forums, conferences and dialogues take place nearly weekly.

“We are not promoting an ideology, it is about creating a common venue and safe space where people can communicate, celebrate common values, and acknowledge and respect our differences,” says Wajih Kanso, director of the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies, one of three interfaith institutes in the capital.

“This is not for a political agenda or to gain power or benefits, it is just to get the message of interfaith harmony out there.”

At the individual level, Jordanians say they find themselves attuned to interfaith work.

While studying for a graduate degree in peace studies in Spain, Renee Hattar says she found herself drawn to researching the interfaith origins of music – namely Eastern Christian hymns and mystic Sufi music.

Through her research she learned more of the Jordanian-led initiatives, and suddenly found herself returning to her homeland and, as part of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, working to unite young Christians, Sunni, Shiite, Druze, and Bahai through music, drama, and storytelling.

“Interfaith harmony is not an invented context, it is natural for us Jordanians as we are used to having different religions around us,” says Ms. Hattar.

Mohammed Abed raises money with his Muslim and Christian friends and neighbors to distribute food for refugees in Amman.

“We are all people of the book, no matter what happens in politics; Muslims, Christians, and Jews have common values,” Mr. Abed says. “We must respect that we worship the same God and we love our neighbor as a fellow man.”

The Hashemites

Jordan’s interfaith drive has a huge supporter. The Hashemites have used their symbolic status as Muhammad’s descendants to give weight to the interfaith message.

King Abdullah has carried Jordan’s interfaith message to the UN General Assembly, the Vatican, and capitals across the West. Prince Hassan and Prince Ghazi crisscross the globe as ambassadors for Jordan’s message; Hassan, who heads the institute that is translating the works of Jewish theologians, reaches out to and meets with Jewish, Buddhist, and other faith communities in the West.

“To have someone steeped historically in the tradition of Islam all the way back to the prophet Muhammad send this message, it made us as Christians stop and look deeply at the common values and respond enthusiastically,” Professor Volf says.

Jordan’s efforts go beyond linking East and West, but also in healing intra-Muslim rifts. The Hashemites’ legitimacy and symbolic authority are recognized by Muslims of all sects and schools.

Indeed, Jordan remains one of the few meeting places in the world where Shiite clerics, hardline Salafist preachers, Christian pastors, and rabbis can gather and freely discuss their views.

Jordan has also leveraged its internationally recognized custodianship of Christian and Islamic sites in Jerusalem to promote coexistence. While maintaining Islamic sites such as Al Aqsa Mosque, Jordan has also helped fund the renovation of the Church of Ascendance on the Mount of Olives and the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Hashemites have also donated land at Bethany, widely recognized as the Baptism site of Jesus, to various denominations.

Accepting the 2018 Templeton Prize in a ceremony attended by the UN secretary-general at the National Cathedral in Washington, Abdullah announced he would donate prize proceeds to renovations of both the Holy Sepulcher and Islamic sites in Jerusalem.

It was a long overdue recognition, Jordanians say.

“Celebrating each-others’ shared values, respecting [our] differences, and taking active roles in society – that is our recipe,” says Father Haddad.

“Every day, we tell the world, come and try our recipe.”