A mosaic from St. George’s Church in Madaba depicts the earliest extant map of the Holy Land. (photo: The Brigdeman Art Library)
Christianity was born in our region and it is not confined to Western culture, said Jordans Prince Hassan bin Talal on the publication of the French edition of his book, Christianity in the Arab World.
According to St. Johns Gospel, Jesus began his public ministry in Bethany Beyond the Jordan — today, part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — where his cousin John preached about the coming of the Messiah.
Soon after the ascension of Jesus, Christianity spread throughout the Holy Land from the holy city of Jerusalem. According to the church historian Eusebius, the citys Christians, including the apostles, fled across the Jordan River to the city of Pella to escape the Jewish revolt against the Romans. There, they planted the seeds of the Christian faith that would soon reach other cities of the Decapolis.
Not long after Emperor Constantine the Great adopted the Christian faith, the cities of Madaba, Petra and Philadelphia (the latter now the Jordanian capital of Amman) became important Christian centers in the Holy Land. Patrons sponsored the building of churches and embellished them with elaborate mosaic floors and other rich appointments. Bishops participated in the important ecumenical councils of the church. And thousands of men and women filled monastic centers or sought private refuge in the wilderness, eager to await the second coming in constant prayer.
Even as Arab Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the seventh century, Christianity continued to thrive. Well into the Umayyad Caliphate (seventh through tenth centuries A.D.), churches were built and decorated lavishly, monasteries and hermitages were established and Christian holy sites continued to host pilgrims. The Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its heart, continued to function as the center of the Christian world.
Demographics. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordans total population numbers some 6.4 million people. According to government statistics, 92 percent is Sunni Muslim, 6 percent Christian and the remaining 2 percent Shiite Muslim and Druze. However, independent sources estimate that only up to 300,000 Christians of all denominations live in Jordan. A majority (about 105,000) belongs to the Greek Orthodox community. Some 50,000 are Latin Catholic; 32,000 are Melkite Greek Catholic; the rest belong to the Armenian (Apostolic and Catholic), Chaldean, Evangelical Protestant, Maronite and Syriac (Catholic and Orthodox) churches. The numbers of Chaldean and Syriac Christians in Jordan fluctuate, since most are Iraqi refugees.
In its latest report for 2010-2011, UN-Habitat ranked Amman as home to the largest group of refugees in the world. Approximately one in four of Ammans two million residents are refugees, straining the citys infrastructure and health and education systems. Nationwide, Jordan hosts some 1.9 million Palestinian refugees and between 400,000 and 500,000 Iraqi refugees, 38,517 of whom are registered with UNHCR.
Socioeconomic situation. Unlike other countries in the region, Jordan enjoys peace and stability — this despite being caught between Iraq and Israel and Palestine. The kingdom is governed by the Hashemites, a family who descend from Muhammad. Since assuming the throne in 1999 from his late father, King Hussein, Abdullah II has liberalized Jordans economic policies, opening it to foreign investment and stimulating significant economic growth.
Though oil reserves are nonexistent and arable land and water supplies are scarce, Jordan has enjoyed significant economic growth since 2000 with annual GDP growth averaging 7.5 percent and per capita GDP more than doubling. Growth has been broad, led by construction, manufacturing, real estate and the services sectors. Since the global economic downturn began in 2008, the kingdom has struggled; for the first three quarters of 2009, the countrys real GDP growth hovered at 2.7 percent, compared to 9.1 percent for the same period in 2008. The government has made a list of economic targets to achieve by the end of the year, including reducing the budget deficit and reining in inflation.
Religious situation. Forging strong Christian- Muslim relationships and deepening ties among peoples of all faiths are hallmarks of the ruling Hashemite family. As a result, the kingdoms Muslim and Christian citizens, 98 percent of whom are ethnic Arabs, coexist in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Not in the least marginalized, Jordanian Christians occupy prominent commercial, diplomatic, military and ministerial positions.
Christian life — including catechesis of the young, pastoral formation of adults, schooling, social service endeavors and worship — thrives and reaches all segments of society, including Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. These refugees have considerable humanitarian and pastoral needs, burdening the resources of the churches in Jordan.
Integral components of the church of Jerusalem, Jordans Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Latin Catholic communities are led by episcopal vicars of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Latin patriarchs of Jerusalem. Only the kingdoms Melkite Greek Catholics have a resident hierarch, the archbishop of Petra and Philadelphia.
Jordanian authorities have invested significantly in the countrys Christian heritage and culture, for example developing the 86-acre baptismal site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Plans include hotels, campsites and 13 new churches, some featuring retreat facilities and monasteries for both male and female religious.