MADABA, Jordan — In the ancient Jordanian town of Madaba, a sturdy bell tower rises from the ominously-named Shrine of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Giddy school girls play below.
A few hundred yards away, the gold and white minarets of Madaba’s Grand Mosque point skyward like massive fingers. From them, a call to prayer floats over everyone, Muslim, Christian or otherwise. Before long, the church bell rings out its own reminder of God’s presence.
Site of bloody 1955 riots in which many Christians died, Madaba is now a calm, hopeful place with a major university. There are conflicts on every border — Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Israel — but Christians and Muslims in Jordan coexist relatively comfortably. Much of the thanks goes to Jordan’s royal family. Descended from Mohammed and in power since the great Arab revolt of almost a century ago, Jordan’s rulers have been western educated and tolerant.
Since the Islamic Revolution that began in Iran in 1979, the 9-11 attacks and the Iraq war, it’s taken even more to sustain understanding between faith communities. That’s where a jovial Melkite Catholic priest comes in.
Father Nabil Haddad helped start the Amman-based Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center in 2003. The aim of the organization, founded with the nation’s Muslim chief justice, is to use religious beliefs as grounds for peace, not war. Father Haddad and his colleagues are proud of 1,400 years of mostly harmonious Christian-Muslim coexistence in Jordan and want to extend the wisdom to others.
For centuries in the desert land now called Jordan, alliances were based not on religion but on economic concern, Father Haddad says. Christians and Muslims often worked side-by-side to promote the welfare of their village, for example.
“The Jordanian experience is very precious, not just for Jordanians, but for the region,” Father Haddad says. “The world needs Jordan. We are not perfect, but in this region, we score very well.”
Father Haddad, married as is tradition among Melkites, appears regularly in regional media, discussing interfaith harmony. Through a lot of work, he has elevated moderate voices.
When 9-11 hit, Father Haddad and Muslim friends organized a candlelight vigil at The Citadel, the ancient Muslim fort in Amman. They also prayed together after terrorist bombings in Amman in 2005; those attacks killed 60 people and injured 115 others.
He once convened a group of imams and Christian leaders who stood shoulder-to-shoulder serving at a soup kitchen, both to aid people and “to give a message.”
He invited Islamic religious leaders to the U.S. to meet regular residents. One imam, on a visit to the space museum in Washington, D.C., viewed the Apollo space capsule and said, “The ones who made that aren’t infidels.”
With H.E Taher Al Masri, Speaker of Jordan’s Senate, Father Haddad leads a group trying to improve conditions so Arab Christians will not leave the region.
An advocate for human rights, the priest has served as director of Caritas Jordan, the Catholic Church’s charitable outreach in the country. He also serves as Dean of Sts. Peter and Paul Old Cathedral in Amman.
In 2008, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates awarded Father Haddad the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his efforts in interfaith coexistence. King Abdullah II named him a member of Jordan’s prestigious Independence Order of the First Class.
The priest is thankful for Jordan’s royal family, who, he says, seem to know what’s really in the Koran and so respect the dignity of all humanity, including Jews and Christians. During the Arab spring, when other leaders used violence on crowds, Jordanian protesters got water and juice from the king.
Father Haddad helped the Jordanian royal family with a document pointing out that Christians and Muslims have something in common — love of God and love of neighbor.
“As a Christian, I want to live with that kind of Muslim,” the priest says.“To live in peace here, we can’t live in isolation.”
One of the hubs of interreligious cooperation in Jordan is education. Many Muslim parents prefer Christian schooling for their children and so in places like Anjara in the north, the Catholic school is 50 percent Muslim.
It’s the same in Madaba, where St. George Christian Orthodox school has 1,000 Christian students and 1,000 Muslims. Christians study the Bible and Muslims the Koran. Everyone learns English and Arabic.
Archimandrite Innokentios, the pastor and school president at St. George, says Muslim parents like both the quality of the education and the formation in morals.
“Do you know how much you can transform society by education?” the priest asks, insisting that Christians and Muslims need to be taught the truth about each other.
There are stumbling blocks to further unity between Muslims and Christians in Jordan. The first is the presence of Islamic extremists — some in Jordan and others, like ISIS, in surrounding countries. It began with Iran’s Islamic revolution and reached new heights after the Iraq War.
“The Jordanian model of tolerance is being challenged,” Father Haddad says. “If we cannot make those extremists change their minds, at least we had better protect the silent majority who has not made up its mind yet to be tolerant or extremist. We need to make sure they don’t go to the other side. This is very important. I do not want to see ISIS grow.”
When ISIS burned Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh to death in on screen in February, it lost whatever support it might have had in Jordan. “The Muslims who understood Islam found this is not real Islam and that created a reaction,” Father Haddad says. “The whole nation became one family against ISIS.”
On the other side, interfaith relations have been damaged singlehandedly by Terry Jones, a Florida man who has burned hundreds of Korans and wrote a book critical of Islam. Father Haddad calls Jones “a stupid pastor.”
In 2007, Father Haddad spent three months explaining a speech Pope Benedict XVI gave at Regensburg, Germany. It was a chore to make it clear that the pope did not mean to insult Islam.
Across the Jordan River in Israel, radical Jewish settlers have announced they want to assume control of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Here’s another stumbling block — Muslims think the U.S. has failed to support the just cause of Palestinians. About half of Jordanians have Palestinian roots.
“There are misunderstandings on both sides,” Father Haddad explains. “Each side sees themselves as the good guys and the other as bad guys.” What is true, the priest concludes, is that everyone at some time has been a victim and has suffered.
“And so,” he says, “we came up with the idea that Muslims and Christians should work together. It’s simple. But we must keep at it.” For more information on the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, go to www.coexistencejordan.org.