Christian in a Muslim World

JULIA DUIN

“I pray that the Christians in Muslim lands get the same freedom as Muslims get in Christian lands,” Shehadeh told us at the press conference. “There are Muslim centers all over the United States but no churches in Saudi Arabia or many of the Gulf states.”


I first met Imad Shehadeh at a press conference — and an uncomfortable press conference at that. Several of us in the media, along with some Christian clergy, were sitting in a hotel room in Amman earlier this year listening to a Catholic and three evangelical Protestants talk about being Christian in overwhelmingly Muslim Jordan.

Shehadeh, a tall man who would fit in on any American college campus, was describing his work as president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, which has had a rough row to hoe getting accreditation from the Jordanian government. Shehadeh got the idea for the school after noticing how few resources there were available for Christian theological study in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. After getting his bachelor's degree at the University of California at San Diego, and his master's and doctorate at Dallas Theological Seminary, he returned to Jordan to found JETS in 1990.

Just getting government approval for the institution took him five years. He tried operating under the auspices of a registered church, but that was shut down. Then financial backers, impatient at the long wait, began dropping out.

Finally, he took a position as principal of an 800-student Christian elementary and secondary school, which brought him into contact with influential people who showed him the inside track on how to obtain approval for the seminary. Through them, he learned the necessary administrative, financial, and academic procedures for setting up such an institution under Jordanian laws.

Thus armed, JETS was finally launched in 1995, in rented facilities, as an educational institution under the Ministry of Culture. At first, Muslims were allowed to attend for the purpose of studying Christianity, but when it became obvious some of them were converting, the government clamped down. In 1999, the government imprisoned three such converts (an Iraqi, a Sudanese, and an Egyptian) under wretched conditions — then deported them. The incident was so egregious, it even got mention in the State Department's 2000 Human Rights Report.

"They were placed with criminals in tight quarters, sometimes as many as 30 in one room," Shehadeh says. "During those difficult weeks, it was very cold and they had to sleep on concrete with no cover and were poorly fed. One of them was beaten and when he finally got out, he was physically ill and unable to move for weeks."

Since then, the government has tied up the 150-student seminary in bureaucratic red tape, making it impossible for them to obtain accreditation or even residence permits for some of their foreign students and staff. Some of the 38 Iraqis in training there are being sent away because of restrictions. And due to visa restrictions, this is the last year Sudanese students can study at JETS. If the school were accredited, visas would be much easier to come by, and the school could also issue decrees.

But the government this year insists that all faculty appointments — as well as that of the president and board of directors — must be approved by the government's Council on Higher Education. Like a state university, JETS would be required to conduct classes on Sundays, which it does not presently do. Worse yet, some of the more traditional Christians in Jordan — Orthodox and Catholics — have perceived JETS as a threat and have petitioned the government to deny them accreditation.

"They say persecution is good for the church; well, we've had our share," Shehadeh says. "We're a long way from where we'd like to be in terms of human rights." JETS is a strategic institution amidst 270 million people in 19 Arabic-speaking countries, many of which would never give Christian students student visas to western countries but would allow them into Jordan. One-third of the enrollees are women. It has gradually built up a 16,000-volume library, most of which is in Arabic. JETS is particularly concerned with the 500,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, some of whom have converted to Christianity. JETS students have helped start eight Iraqi churches.

"I pray that the Christians in Muslim lands get the same freedom as Muslims get in Christian lands," Shehadeh told us at the press conference. "There are Muslim centers all over the United States but no churches in Saudi Arabia or many of the Gulf states."

For that and other remarks the Jordanians found inflammatory, he was later interrogated, he said, quite harshly for his frankness. Supported by Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Free Evangelical, Baptist, and Christian and Missionary Alliance churches in Jordan, the seminary somehow muddles through despite various obstacles — which are sure to mount in the coming months and years, as the U.S. campaign against Islamic terrorists intensifies.

Shehadeh is hardly a Westerner himself; his parents are Palestinians, Orthodox Christians who were driven out of Israel in 1948. His travails are part and parcel of what Christians in the Middle East endure on a regular basis. We got to sample this during an interview with Akel Biltaji, then minister of tourism for Jordan. All was serene until he was asked why Muslims were not allowed to change their religion in Jordan. Muslims could convert to Christianity, he said smoothly, but they must expect to suffer, if not die for their new faith. After all, he added, Christ died for them.

One could almost hear jaws drop around the room. He was quite cold about it.

And Jordan is considered one of the more friendly countries toward its Christian minority; in fact, only Lebanon is said to be freer.

I began to realize what Shehadeh and his seminarians are up against.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Julia Duin. "Christian in a Muslim World." National Review (November 12, 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

THE AUTHOR

Julia Duin, assistant national editor at the Washington Times.

Copyright © 2001 National Review


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