In January, an era drew to a close as the pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Selim Sayegh, Latin patriarchal vicar of Jordan, who last year reached the mandatory retirement age for bishops:75 years. Bishop Selim worked closely with CNEWAs Pontifical Mission office in Amman for many years, particularly on a project that remains especially close to his heart. The Our Lady of Peace Center in Amman is a haven for children who are handicapped or developmentally disabled. As he prepared to embark on the next stage of his life, Bishop Selim took a few moments recently to answer some questions by e-mail and reflect on his ministry.
ONE: First, tell us a little bit of your background. Where did you grow up?
Bishop Selim Sayegh: I was born in a small village called Rumaimeen in 1935. This is a village surrounded by a lot of fruit trees and bushes, and gardens with a lot of springs. My father was a farmer whose income was not enough for the family, so he migrated in 1943 to Mafraq, where there was a station for the Iraq Petroleum Company. At that time, young people from Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon came looking for jobs, since this project was planning to pump petrol from Iraq through Jordan, then to the Port of Haifa in Palestine. In Mafraq, my father took to trading and shoe repairing, but did not succeed.
After finishing the fourth grade, I went from Mafraq to the [Latin] seminary in Beit Jala in 1947. In 1956, my eldest brother migrated to the United States, and the whole family followed in 1962.
ONE: Youve said that you knew at a very young age that you wanted to be a priest. Tell us about that. What attracted you to the priesthood?
Bishop Selim Sayegh: Toward the end of the 1946-1947 school year, one of the seminary priests came to Mafraq to meet my cousin Issa, who showed interest in becoming a priest. However, his parents obtained visas to migrate to America. Issa went with them and forgot the idea of becoming a priest. Then the parish priest, Father Fouad Hijazeen, offered to send me to the seminary instead of Issa. At that time, I was visiting my uncle in Rumaimeen. My father took me from Rumaimeen to Mafraq at the end of the summer vacation. On the way he asked me, Do you want to enter the seminary? I said, Yes, I do.
Later, I discovered gradually that Jesus who resides in the tabernacle is the one who invites me to him.
ONE: One of your most important initiatives has been Our Lady of Peace Center in Amman. Where did you get the idea?
Bishop Selim Sayegh: Our Lady of Peace Center addressed two prominent needs of the church in Jordan. The first need is the service of the handicapped. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem established its schools and charitable institutions in Jordan in the middle of the 19th century, but it has no institution or activity to look after the handicapped in Jordan. They are the poorest of the poor and most in need of services and help. I saw that the church should have a place to perform her duty and witness to Christian charity in this field. In 1992, we established a Faith and Light team, which is celebrating its 20th year of foundation in Jordan and its 40th year worldwide.
The second need is to assist the church youth movements. The Christian youth in Jordan did not have any place for their spiritual retreats, camps and other activities.
ONE: What are some of the challenges facing the people of Jordan today?
Bishop Selim Sayegh: Jordan is now passing through a difficult political and economic stage and we pray to God that we can overcome it in peace, and that we always proceed toward the best with clear thinking, wisdom and responsibility. We all know that achieving the best is not done by one push on the button or remote control, but it needs a strong will, time, planning, work and lots of sacrifices.
As for Christian and Muslim relations: For more than 15 years, the Ministry of Education made the decision to teach Christian religion in government schools, but refused to implement it until now.
There are verses in the Quran that express total religious freedom like: There is no enforcement in religion … whoever will, can have faith and whoever does not believe, is free … If God wants, He would have made people one nation. But these verses are not lived out. The Muslim is still not free to change his religion. The Christian who becomes a Muslim loses his religious freedom. It is known in Arabic countries that religion has a civil dimension. For example, a Christian wife cannot inherit from her Muslim husband because she is a Christian.
ONE: What are your thoughts on the situation of Iraqi refugees in Jordan?
Bishop Selim Sayegh: The state does not consider the Iraqi migrants in Jordan as migrants, but as guests. Lawfully, they are not under the migrants laws and regulations. They are living in peace and enjoy security and privileges that cost the Jordanian government millions yearly. The government, for example, supports bread for all Jordanians and non-Jordanians. A minority from the Iraqi migrants is rich and does not need any support.
The church helps them in any way possible, especially through the Caritas Jordan and the Pontifical Mission.
ONE: Looking ahead, what do you hope to do in the future?
Bishop Selim Sayegh: I will reside in the Our Lady of Peace Center. I will have plenty of time to meditate and pray. The new bishop will be responsible for the center. I will be assisting Father Hanna Kildani, the parish priest for Marj Al Hamam. I will help the priests in confessions, in youth camps and spiritual retreats in the center. I will be ready for any service asked by the patriarch or the new bishop.
Greg Kandra is CNEWA’s multimedia editor and serves as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.