A Roman Catholic church cross is seen as the sun sets before Christians take part in a candlelight march and prayed for peace in Gaza, Jordan, and in the Arab region, in Al-Fuheis city, near Amman, August 11, 2014. Participants passed by three churches, the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Latin C.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MUHAMMAD HAMED)
When the Puritans arrived in the New World (now America), they wanted to ensure that the religious discrimination that they faced in Europe would not follow them. So, to guarantee that they can freely worship, they instituted very strict measures to separate church from state. No one running for office was supposed to be questioned about their faith, which was left to a person’s own relationship with their creator. The new constitution, amendments (especially the first amendment) and laws were very clear in this regard. Governance and the running of public institutions is to be divorced from religion. Until this day, churches and faith-based organizations get tax exemption on condition that they stay out of partisan politics and are not allowed to express preference to any specific political party or candidate.
Many believe that one of the strengths of America has been this strict separation of religion from politics. Many of the Puritans, also called Anabaptists, because they believed in baptism of adults, became influential in the new country which would later become the United States of America and are the forefathers of today’s modern evangelical movement. Despite their agreement on the importance of adherence to biblical text, evangelicals over the years have changed. There are African-American evangelicals who are quite different from white evangelicals, and even within white evangelicals there are the liberal Jimmy Carter (and Sojourner’s Rev. Jim Wallis) types who are closer to the Democratic Party and the more conservative, white evangelicals who have adopted the Republican conservative line and have become proponents of a far right-wing stream in it.
The latter, and some of the others, have adopted an exaggerated and sometimes contradictory foreign policy which centers on the blind ideological support of the far-right wing factions in Israel. To these Christian Zionists, the idea of supporting the Israeli messianic movement is of course the fastest way to speed up the Second Coming, which ironically in their own thinking includes the slaughter of many Jews in the battle of Armageddon.
In Jordan, while evangelicals have taken up the faith in the early 20th century, long before the founding of the modern kingdom, they refused to adhere to the political right-wing of evangelicals and stayed largely out of any political engagement. Jordanian evangelicals in time became self-sufficient financially, and thus were no longer bound even to give lip service to some of the hardline theologies that some missionaries wanted them to adopt.
The Hashemite rule has been a blessing to Arab Christians, including evangelicals. In a turbulent region fraught with the danger of Islamist extremism, all Christians enjoyed freedom and a privileged status under the late King Hussein like no other Arab Muslim country and continue to do so under King Abdullah II. If a Muslim leader is to be a candidate for Templeton Prize, many have argued in public, King Abdullah II absolutely qualifies as one. The Jordanian Evangelical Council headed by Emad Maayya, a former member of parliament and a retired army major general, has been a strong supporter of the king and has taken a strong stand against Christian Zionism.
Amid recent reports that the kingdom treats evangelicals poorly, I spoke to Suheil Madanat – president of the Baptist Convention in Jordan and a leading member of the Jordan Evangelical Council.
“The truth is that, no evangelical churches are or were closed and no Jordanian pastor was forced to leave the country for religious reasons. One church was indeed closed in late 2017 on bureaucratic issues, but this was largely due to the attitude of its pastor whose ordination we, the Baptist denomination in Jordan have revoked for other reasons. The referred to pastor was not forced to leave the country but left of his own accord,” the president of the Jordan Baptist Convention told me in an email.
It is no secret that Jordanian evangelicals have issues with the authorities, which has not accepted request for formal recognition on par with traditional denominations, some that entered Jordan long after evangelicals (including the Adventists). Neither Israel nor Palestine recognize evangelicals also. One of the problems with government recognition is that evangelical churches are autonomous without a hierarchy like Catholics and Orthodox. As a result, sometimes, each a pastor or group of churches act on their own, making it difficult for the government to be able to engage with a single body as they can with the traditional churches.
Evangelicals who are usually low key and don’t get too involved in political issues prefer to resolve issues with the authorities on their own as full Jordanian citizens. They feel that interference by “freedom-of religion” advocates from the United States does not help since they believe that these individuals do not understand the nuances of the social fabric in Jordan. This is one reason why Jordanian Baptists and leading evangelicals, turned down the November 2017 invitation to meet with a fact-finding delegation of American evangelical leaders. The other reason is that Jordanian evangelicals have deep political and theological differences with American Christian Zionists.
During the Christmas season, the head of the Jordanian Evangelical Council Emad Mayya and other Church and lay leaders were invited by the king and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for a reception and a Christmas carol concert in Amman. During the event, Christian evangelicals and others congratulated the king on winning the Templeton Prize for religious tolerance which they felt was a well-deserved award for a leader that has shown in word and action the very values of tolerance and respect to all faithful that the prize represents. They also reaffirmed their desire to see Jordan apply the ideas presented in the king’s sixth discussion paper of October 2016 titled “Rule of Law and the Civil State.” The paper envisions Jordan becoming a state where citizens are totally equal irrespective of their religion and where the constitution and the laws are the reference point for all citizens. The Puritans who introduced the separation of church and state could be a role model for the Middle East, where separating religion from politics and where the rule of law is preeminent to all citizens.
The writer is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is a committed Christian. Follow him on twitter.com/daoudkuttab.
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