AMMAN, Jordan — Less than an hour by car from where St. John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan, there’s a city where the Christian message is vividly alive.
Love is bravely besting fear in Amman, a sprawling city that’s absorbed approximately 1 million refugees, escapees from catastrophe to the north (Syria) and east (Iraq), as well as from violence-racked Libya to the west and Yemen to the south.
Foreign assistance programs and a local populace willing to aid the displaced demonstrates that this land resists terrorism. These modern-day Good Samaritans are relentlessly doing the Lord’s work in the Holy Land areas.
At the busy doorway of a Caritas clinic, volunteer Naitham Badfy, age 50, uses a clipboard to help check patients in while offering guidance in Arabic.
Badfy is an Iraqi refugee and Chaldean Catholic, who was driven out of Karamlesh, a Christian-majority town, by the Islamic State (IS) forces some 18 months ago.
“I had a friend in the Iraqi military who warned me to get out as fast as possible,” Badfy recounted. He put his three children and wife in the car and drove north to Erbil, the capital of a safer region controlled by Kurdish people.
“The very last person to leave was a priest, Father Thabet, to make sure everyone got out,” said Badfy.
Soon after Jordan’s King Abdullah II (considered a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad) offered his country as an “oasis” to Arab Christians — and others — displaced by IS, Badfy and his family were on a flight from Erbil to Amman.
Badfy hopes to join the Chaldean community in Michigan, “God willing.” Meanwhile, his children attend college and high school, beneficiaries of tuition grants from the Italian bishops’ conference and other local and international supporters.
The clinic where Badfy works typifies the well-organized, personalized service provided to anyone with medical needs and no place to go.
A file is opened for each person seen by the Catholic international charity Caritas, and a database tracks progress, follow-up and other assistance received. Each day, 150 people are seen.
Many of the Syrian refugees come from rural areas. Pregnant women, for example, typically have had no prenatal care and often don’t know their due dates. Some have been deeply traumatized by war. Medical staff says there are higher rates of child epilepsy in this population, for example.
Dr. Maram Al-Rabadi reported she has seen five cases of epilepsy, three cases of urinary incontinence among children and several cases of type-1 diabetes in two days, all correlated with traumatic experience.
“Psychological conditions tend to be translated into health,” she explained. “People have experienced terrible things. They suffer.”
Every Caritas center has two doctors and two nurses, but they could use more professionals, in order to see more patients and to spend more time with each one. Serious cases are transferred to the Italian hospital, just up the hill.
“Everyone says the Caritas clinic is better than the government ones, because we treat each patient as an individual,” said Nour Mickel, who manages the clinic center.
“We are trained that success is when a patient leaves us feeling as though his or her humanity has been valued, not just that we helped fix a body.”
At a separate Caritas center nearby, the psycho-social needs of the refugee community are addressed. Women, most wearing headscarves, are filing into a big room for a counseling session on handling stress. Through a door is a bright room with toys and books for children ages 6-14.
Staff found that Iraqis, who tend to be more educated, wanted group discussions that were precise, even scientific. The Syrian population were pleased with more general discussions, such as positive thinking, and topics oriented toward women, since so many women are leading displaced households — men are in jail, dead or back at home, trying to defend property.
Across the street is a Caritas center devoted to the humanitarian needs of Syrians, the biggest refugee group, representing about 20% of the country’s entire population of 6.7 million — an astounding number.
Women and men sit in separate waiting areas to accommodate their mainly conservative preferences.
A religious sister, originally from South Korea, is the Caritas volunteer checking people in, and she is cheerfully managing the flow of people, consulting with staffers at computers.
Rather than providing a standard monthly box of goods, as other aid groups do, Caritas provides vouchers and does extensive follow-up with families.
A home-visit checklist shows that staff compile information on everything ranging from what school each child is attending to settlement conditions, sanitation, bedding conditions, access to water, monthly expenses, debt and negative coping mechanisms, such as accepting high-risk jobs or letting children under the age of 16 work.
Many of the Iraqis served by Caritas in the last two years have been Christians, while few Syrians are.
“Iraqis were mainly professionals. We saw many well-educated Iraqis and many Christian Iraqis, who are especially concerned about education,” explained one staffer, who added, “Many Syrians want to keep children at home rather than school.”
A caseworker explained Syrians are more likely to come from Bedouin areas, where people live a semi-nomadic existence, often raising goats. She said, “Few Syrians want to go to the U.S. because they perceive the U.S. as having something to do with what’s gone wrong in this region, so they distrust it.”
“Iraqis have been through a lot, and they want to leave for good. They don’t think Iraq can ever be a safe or welcoming place,” observed Mickel. “But most Syrians say, ‘When we hear it is safe, we want to go back.’ They still have hope for peace.”
Churches Open Doors
Looking for an evening Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, I found a lovely prayer chapel adjacent to a church snack bar, where adults were drinking tea and chatting.
The server was an Iraqi refugee with a familiar story: an Assyrian Christian from Mosul, almost killed by IS invaders, who made it with his family to Iraqi Kurdistan, where Catholic clergy organized the move from Erbil to Amman.
His family arrived in October 2014 and lived in the church’s main hall with 70 other refugees until last spring, when the church, as part of a group of 14 Christian churches, helped them all find apartments to rent.
The family is now waiting “for maybe another year or so” to join a daughter in Australia. Meanwhile, the man says he and his family have been well supplied and guided by the church.
“We have a wonderful pastor,” he explained, which inspired several socializers to take me to the pastor’s house next door, since it was only 8:30pm.
Father Yacoub Hijazin has a 25-year-old’s kinetic energy, although he was ordained 51 years ago, at age 25.
He said the families who lived in the church hall “behaved like brothers and sisters. They were Chaldeans and Assyrians [Catholics and Orthodox], but all followers of Jesus Christ, not like Shia and Sunni, who want to kill each other.”
The priest explained how everyone in the parish contributes goods, services and cash to provide for the visitors. “We collected coats and food. We found extra bedding and extra shoes. We helped find work for our friends, and it goes on. Amman is an expensive city already, and all the extra people have pushed rents up.”
Gesturing to a corner of his office — where a pink snowsuit was falling out of a plastic bag next to a stack of framed Divine Mercy images ready for hanging — it’s clear that caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the Iraqi brothers and sisters continues to be a major endeavor.
“Many have already left, and more still hope to leave. They want to go to Canada, the U.S., Australia, somewhere new. They say, ‘Our home is in our heart.’ They don’t want to go back to Iraq. The problem is: The U.N. holds almost all the cards when it comes to resettlement.”
Father Hijazin said the kingdom of Jordan has created the essential positive context for Christian solidarity around the refugee crisis. He outlined three reasons for the friendly attitude.
Why Jordan Is Pro-Christian
First, the royal family includes Christians.
“King Abdullah II’s mother, Princess Mouna, was born a British citizen. She lives in this country and goes to the Anglican Church — visits St. Joseph’s too,” he said. “So there’s a respect for Christianity right at the top,” explained the pastor.
“Second,” Father Hijazin said, “the royals and other Muslim elites consider Catholic schools to be among the finest, which, again, fosters respect for Christianity.”
“Why did King Hussein send his son [King Abdullah, the current king] to Georgetown, who now has his son at Georgetown University? Because they know Catholic education is the best. Right across the street is an elementary school run by a local religious congregation, the Rosary Sisters. It has about 1,000 students, and the majority are Muslims.”
“Third,” said Father Hijazin, “the country is homogeneous, with the vast majority Sunni Muslim, from either Jordan or Palestine, and a long tradition of peace between Muslims and Christians.”
According to the priest, “My family is one of the biggest Christian tribes, from the southern part of the country — Christians from the start, since Jesus.
“In the mid-19th century, under Pope Pius IX, the Latin Church dedicated more effort to catechism and building the Church by sending more priests who could speak Arabic. My grandfather converted from Orthodox to Latin Catholicism, bringing a huge family with him.”
Based on popular lore, there were times in history when the Ottomans invaded and local Muslims protected the local Christian community from potentially lethal outsiders, including the Ottomans in the late-19th century.
Pope Francis started his May 2014 visit to the Holy Land in Jordan, thanking the country for promoting “serene coexistence” between Muslims and Christians.
The Jordan River location where Jesus was baptized is not your typical tourist site. It’s a military zone, since the river forms the border between Jordan and Israel.
“For now, Jordan is safe. We just hope and pray it remains so,” said Khalid, a Jordanian Catholic I met at church, who offered, with his friend Raouf, to drive from Amman to the biblical holy place.
Khalid was visiting the baptism site for the first time since it was opened to the public in 2002.
Just last summer, UNESCO declared the Jordan side of the river, the East Bank, to be the authentic, historic location of Christ’s baptism by St. John, based on archeological evidence, including remnants of chapels, monk’s cells and baptismal pools.
Raouf is a Palestinian shopkeeper who has spent most of his life in Jordan. His parents came from Haifa and Jaffa, port cities located in Israel today. They were displaced by conflict over the creation of Israel in 1948.
Gazing at Israel over the thin, muddy ribbon of water, Raouf reminded me that more than 3 million Palestinians found safety in Jordan, so Jordan has almost 70 years of experience serving as refuge for the uprooted.
Today, most Palestinians are fully integrated into Jordanian society and carry Jordanian passports, including Queen Rania, wife of King Abdullah II.
Yet in Bethlehem this week, clashes between Palestinians and Israelis flared again.
“There is a lot of tension in this region, a lot of poor people and too much ignorance, exploited by Daesh,” explained Raouf, using the local term for the Islamic State.
“Now, people love Russia more than America because they are attacking Daesh,” Raouf added. A Jordanian soldier sitting nearby leaned over to agree.