Evangelicals in Jordan have a new leader. They just don’t have anything official for him to lead yet.
Five denominations, including Baptists, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Nazarene, and Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) churches, met a month ago to elect Habes Nimat as president of the Jordanian Evangelical Council. They comprise 57 churches total.
“I would like to believe that they chose me because I am a team player,” said Nimat, who has led a CMA congregation in the capital city of Amman since 2017. “I have good relations with the evangelical society, the local society, and they know my work with Christians of all denominations.”
Established in 2006, the council is the fruit of nearly 100 years of evangelical outreach in Jordan. Numbering roughly 10,000 individuals, evangelicals remain a small minority among the 2.2 percent of Christians in Jordan’s overall population of 10 million, almost exclusively Sunni Muslims.
Nimat will need to rely on these good relations to achieve the most pressing evangelical concern—legal recognition of the council as an official Christian denomination.
Jordan currently recognizes 11 Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.
They are organized into the official Council of Church Leaders (CCL), which functions as a government advisory body. The prime minister will confer with the CCL on whether or not to admit new representation.
“We have been working on registration for many years as one body,” said Nimat, “but so far, we have not heard an answer from them, neither positive nor negative.”
Representation on the CCL entitles the denomination to…
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The pastor of the Amman International Church in Jordan had a problem.
Suspected intelligence agents were coming to church, asking questions, and attending Bible studies. His youth pastor was detained at the Israeli-Jordan border and denied reentry. Members of his church, some who had lived for years in Jordan, were suddenly denied visas.
“Politically speaking, we were the best protected church—half of our congregation were military or foreign service,” said Greg Griesemer, pastor since 2012.
“But after testing the waters with us, the government went more aggressively against the Jordanian evangelical churches.”
Griesemer eventually had to leave the country also, informed that the government had an alleged file accusing him of proselytizing Muslims. But he believed the government was checking to see if anyone would stand up for evangelicals in general, as the Vatican would do for Catholics. Unlike the historic churches of Jordan, evangelicals are not represented in the official national council of churches.
Despite a congregation filled with American citizens, appeals to the US embassy went nowhere, he said. And then quite unexpectedly, in came the cavalry.
Completely unrelated to local developments in Jordan, popular Christian author Joel Rosenberg had been developing a warm relationship with Jordan’s King Abdullah. An evangelical of Jewish background, Rosenberg writes political thrillers about the end times, weaving current events into a Biblical narrative of apocalyptic prophecy.
In one bestseller, the king and the Hashemite Kingdom were targets of a series of ISIS terrorist attacks. After reading the novel, Abdullah invited Rosenberg and his wife to Jordan for a five-day visit, and a friendship emerged. Later and at the king’s invitation, in November 2017 Rosenberg led a delegation of American evangelical leaders to see Jordan firsthand.
But not just any leaders. They included several who were politically connected, including close advisors to President Donald Trump. The group featured Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, Jim Garlow, former senior pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego, who moved to Washington to minister to politicians, and Michele Bachmann, a former congresswoman from Minnesota, in addition to others.
Jordan was not their only priority. In the past 18 months Rosenberg also led the group to visit Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Coming again with official invitations, he wished to forge better ties between evangelical Christians and Middle East governments and peoples. A key priority has been to support Christian minorities, who often feel under pressure in society, if not persecuted by Muslims of extremist ideology.
Also invited to participate was Mike Evans, leader of the Jerusalem Prayer Team and founder of the Friends of Zion Heritage Center, in Israel. A self-proclaimed Christian Zionist, he and several members of the delegation were well-known for their strong support of Israel.
Their reputation preceded them in Jordan, and some local evangelical leaders turned down invitations to meet. Though Jordan maintains a peace treaty with Israel, popular sentiment is strongly in favor of the Palestinians. They did not want to be associated with an ideology that would strain relations not only with Muslims, but also traditional Christian church leaders.
But Rosenberg’s delegation did come at the invitation of King Abdullah, and they had already met with several senior government officials, including the foreign minister and the chairman of Jordan’s joint chiefs of staff. Nearly 40 evangelical leaders and pastors did agree to sit down, representing many of the major denominations and ministries in Jordan. They included Emad Maayah, president of the Jordan Evangelical Council, and Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, and they shared their perspectives and prayer requests in an off-the-record dialogue.
The pastors conveyed a deep sense of respect toward the king and appreciation for the freedom Jordan gives them and all Christians in the country. Some spoke reluctantly of issues they were facing, and Griesemer was also present to share his story. Notes were taken, discussed, and agreed to be shared tactfully with King Abdullah.
Mike Evans, a journalist by profession, took particular interest. During the delegation’s working lunch at the palace with the king later that day to conclude their visit, he spoke up first to relay the issues discussed. Others followed.
Photos were agreed upon, and a simple press release was issued by both palace and delegation.
In later, follow-up discussions with the palace Evans would mention a Jordanian pastor who was having his ministries shut down by the government, and how evangelical churches were losing the ability to offer volunteer visas to foreign staff.
Abdullah expressed surprise, that he had never heard of these troubles, and in front of the group assigned one of his closest advisors to look into it.
“Everyone was very encouraged,” Evans said. “I went back to the Jordanian believers, and told them I have good news.”
Such a response was fitting with the reputation of the king. Last year in November he was awarded the prestigious, $1.4 million Templeton Prize, celebrating exceptional contributions to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” First given to Mother Teresa, previous winners range from Billy Graham to the Dalai Lama. Abdullah was cited for his efforts to foster better inter-Islamic unity in rejection of terrorism, as well as leadership in fostering Muslim-Christian dialogue and peace.
Six weeks later came the salvo.
“For King Abdullah to receive the Templeton Prize for religious tolerance in view of this situation in Jordan is an absolute travesty,” wrote Evans in the Jerusalem Post. “It is the Templeton Prize for bigotry.”
What changed? Evans wrote that he worked with the king’s advisor for over a year, but things only got worse. The Jordanian pastor’s ministry was dismantled. Churches were being asked to submit membership lists to the government. It seemed fitting with a media campaign launched against evangelicals, as interpreted by some. A year earlier the Jordan Times published an article in which an Arab Christian leader called them “outlaws,” using an Arabic word frequently describing ISIS.
Frustrated, Evans went public, and Griesemer was pleased. He had pushed Evans to engage the press earlier.
“I value trying to work quietly through individuals and groups, but with the issue of Christian persecution the Jordanian government doesn’t care enough to deal with it until there is public pressure,” Griesemer said.
“It is clear the government was committed to its hypocrisy of waving the flag of religious freedom, but in the background persecute Christians.”
He cited a similar situation a decade earlier. Christian expats were being expelled from Jordan, some under accusations of proselytizing. In many cases no reason was given, though the government stated they were violating the terms of their residency visas. But once the press got involved, Griesemer said, international attention caused Jordan to backtrack and the wave of expulsions ceased, with some reversed.
Evans hopes a media strategy will be successful again, describing his obligation as the one who addressed these issues with King Abdullah, personally.
“I believe it can help the situation, because nothing else has,” he said. “I will speak up for them, no matter the cost.”
But who will pay it?
Imad Shehadeh, the seminary president, had to answer nonstop phone calls and messages about his role in the article. Evans did not check with us, he told them, and circulated published quotes in which he praised the king for winning the Templeton Prize.
“We are praying for protection and no further escalation,” said Shehadeh.
Evans believed he was doing Jordanian evangelicals a favor. In his article the only cases attached to names were ones where he had specific personal permission. But for everyone else, he anticipated their reaction.
“I don’t think they’ll be happy, and they are the ones who live there,” he said. “But they can always say, ‘We didn’t talk to him.’”
But Evans’ article also caught other members of the delegation by surprise. Joel Rosenberg said all conversations with the Jordanian Christians and palace were explicitly off the record. (Evans disputed this.)
“I was disappointed to see a friend of mine break our ground rules of confidentiality with both His Majesty and our Jordanian Christian brothers and sisters, and then publicly accuse King Abdullah of being a bigot,” Rosenberg said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and it does not reflect the reality.”
After reading Evans’ article against the king, Rosenberg immediately reached out to the Royal Court as well as to Jordanian Evangelical leaders in an effort to limit the damage, even sending a personal note of apology to the king for the unfair attack by one of his delegation members.
In an interview with TMP, Rosenberg praised Abdullah as “far and away the leader of the pack” among other Middle East leaders working to protect Christians, allowing churches to operate openly, and promoting peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians.
“There is no question Jordanian Christians, like all Middle Eastern Christians, have challenges and problems, that is the reality of the region,” he said. “But my direct understanding from evangelical leaders throughout the Hashemite Kingdom is how much they appreciate the king and the freedom they have.
“Any argument by a few frustrated individuals has to be seen in the context of the respect Jordanian society has for Christians.”
Shehadeh spoke similarly, defending King Abdullah.
“Jordan is not a perfect country. No country is,” he said, describing Abdullah’s past interventions to solve Christian issues.
“But the king is in a very difficult position trying to work with people of opposing positions and has consistently done a remarkable job to bring sides together. Political leaders in other countries can learn a lot from him.”
The furor has now died down, Shehadeh described, thanks to Rosenberg’s response.
Award-winning journalist Daoud Kuttab, a committed Christian who lives in Jordan, also downplayed the long-term implications. Evans published in an Israeli newspaper, in English, so most of society was likely ignorant. But he published a response in the Jerusalem Post nonetheless, and called out Evans for shoddy journalism.
“It was a hit job,” he said. “Evans used partial information from renegade and non-mainstream people, without talking to all sides.”
Kuttab quoted the president of the Jordan Baptist Convention stating that only one evangelical church was closed down, but due to the attitude of the pastor Evans cited. (The pastor disputed this.)
“Sure there are problems,” Kuttab said, “but for Evans to call the king a bigot? He made evangelicals look like the reason.”
Evans, however, warned about becoming blind to the abuses of power, just to retain access. Why are Muslim leaders reaching out to them to begin with? Because of their connections to Trump.
“They want things from America, but I don’t think this can be one-sided,” he said. “We’re not official, and we don’t speak for the president.
“But we have influence, and we have to live with our own consciences. It is a matter of integrity and the word of God.”
Perhaps. But it is his call to make? Griesemer, the international church pastor, believes it is worth it, and that he himself paid a high price in having to leave his job, home, and community.
“Either be moderately persecuted in the dark, or speak out and maybe it gets better—or worse. Let God work out the details,” he said.
“I lived there for a decade. I had similar risks, though not the same.”
At the November 13 award ceremony of the 2018 Templeton Prize for contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, Rev. Randolph Hollerith, dean of the illustrious National Cathedral in Washington, DC, invoked one political leader to pay homage to another.
“The struggle for peace and mutual understanding is truly God’s work,” he said, calling attention to a saying and on-grounds statue of Abraham Lincoln. “King Abdullah [of Jordan] has shown us how to truly make it our own.”
The $1.4 million prize, traditionally granted to religious figures, philosophers, and scientists, marks the Templeton Foundation’s goal to be an international catalyst for discoveries relating to the deepest and most profound questions facing humankind.
“It begins with the struggle—the jihad—within ourselves to be the best we can be,” Said Abdullah. “All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.” [Jihad means “struggle” in Arabic.]
But just as Lincoln was a spiritually sensitive soul in a country divided by war, so King Abdullah II of Jordan was cited for his faith-based efforts to heal the Muslim nation—and the world.
“His Majesty King Abdullah the Second is a person shaped by temporal and political responsibilities,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, “yet one who holds the conviction that religious belief and the free exercise of religion are among humankind’s most important callings.”
In the wake of the Iraq war, Abdullah was pained at the sectarianism and violence Muslim groups perpetrated against one another. On November 9, 2005, they took aim at Jordan, as coordinated suicide bombings at three Amman hotels killed over 50 people.
The timing suggests deep offense against Abdullah’s leadership.
A year to the day earlier, the king launched the Amman Message from Jordan’s capital. Its three points declared the validity of the eight traditional Muslim schools of jurisprudence, forbade the practice of calling a Muslim an infidel, and set forth criteria for legitimate issuance of legal fatwas.
Eventually over 500 leading Muslim scholars endorsed the document.
But Abdullah did not content himself with peace between Muslims. In 2007 he led the effort to launch A Common Word Between Us and You, addressing the heads of Christian communities around the world.
Assuaging popular fears that Muslims were against Christians, it instead urged dialogue and cooperation around the twin commands to love God and love neighbor, which it declared common to both faiths.
Originally signed by 138 Muslim leaders, it has now been endorsed by nearly 20,000 individuals.
“Abraham pitched a grand tent in which all were welcome,” said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of Zaytuna College in California, in remarks at the ceremony.
“King Abdullah’s work, above and beyond his duties as head of state, is helping to restore that resplendent Abrahamic tent where all are welcome as guests of God.”
Yusuf was joined by Miroslav Volf, founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and the lead author of the Christian response to A Common Word.
“Muslims and Christians had concocted together a poisonous brew,” he said. “The only instrument powerful enough to confront the differences … are seemingly impotent words.”
But to the words of these declarations, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added the importance of symbolism and practical help. He praised Abdullah, his “dear friend,” for the proposal to establish the UN World Interfaith Harmony Week, unanimously adopted and held the first week of February.
But in reference to his former role as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he lauded Jordan’s reception of tens of thousands of refugees, both Christian and Muslim.
“I had to visit governments to ask them to do the impossible,” he said, turning toward the king. “But I would visit your majesty, and the impossible would become a reality.”
Performers at the ceremony included the Dozan wa Awtar choir and Jordan’s National Music Conservatory Orchestra, under the direction of producer and pianist Talal Abu Al Ragheb.
Vocalists included Zain Awad and Emanne Beasha, the nine-year-old winner of Arabs Got Talent.
King Abdullah II joins a group of 47 prize recipients including Mother Teresa, who received the inaugural award in 1973, the Dalai Lama (2012), and Desmond Tutu (2013). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks won the 2016 Prize. The 2017 Laureate was American philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
Abdullah is the 41st direct descendant of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Monarch since 1999, he reigns over a population of roughly 10 million, estimated at two percent Christian. His Hashemite family has had custodianship over Holy Land religious sites since 1924.
Templeton Award prize money would be partially given to repair these ancient buildings, the king said, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The rest would be distributed to interfaith institutions in Jordan and around the world.
In his acceptance speech, Abdullah assured his lifetime of effort was to please God, not the world. And like with Lincoln above, he urged the audience on to a greater jihad.
“It is time to do all we can to maximize the good in our world, and bring people together in understanding,” said Abdullah.
“We can create the future of coexistence that humanity so desperately needs. Let us keep up the struggle.”
Please click here for a full video of the award ceremony.
For his lifelong commitment to religious peace, King Abdullah II of Jordan recently became the second Muslim ever to win the prestigious, $1.4 million Templeton Prize. And Jordan’s Christian minority is celebrating with him.
“I believe in our king,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, following Wednesday’s announcement. “He is a kind, wise, loving, humble, and effective leader.”
Established in 1973, the Templeton Prize is awarded for exceptional contribution to “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” First given to Mother Teresa, previous winners range from Billy Graham to the Dalai Lama. More recently, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and Jean Vanier of L’Arche have won the prize.
But this year, Abdullah was honored as a ruler who has done more promote inter-Islamic and interfaith harmony than any other living political leader, Templeton said.
Islam is the official religion of Jordan, and the constitution guarantees freedom of religion for minorities such as the roughly 2 percent of the population that’s Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox). The Protestant community joins them in commending their king’s efforts for religious unity, though some wish his commitment went even further…
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