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Jordan issues statement on crackdown on religious freedom

The Government of Jordan has issued a statement on religious freedom in its country following a story by Compass Direct which said Jordan last week admitted to expelling foreigners for illegal missionary activities, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

In an article by Peter Lamprecht for Compass Direct News entitled "Jordan Deports More Christians, Deplores Compass Report; Church council condemnation of article came at government's urging," the agency says that Jordan has continued deporting foreign evangelical pastors, as the government last week admitted to expelling foreigners for "illegal" missionary activities.

The Compass News story says that Acting Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told the Jordanian parliament on Wednesday (February 20) that authorities had expelled missionaries operating "under the cover of doing charitable work," suggesting that evangelistic activity is illegal in Jordan.

Lamprecht writes: "If such evangelistic work were illegal -with a missionary permit or not -Jordan could be opening itself to accusations of violating Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the country published in its official Gazette in July 2006, giving it the force of law."

In his article, Lamprecht stated: "Article 18 of the covenant states that everyone has the inherent right publicly or privately to 'manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.' It also states, however, that such freedom may be subject to limitations prescribed by law to protect public 'order.'"

Leaving Islam Is Prohibited In Jordan

According to Lamprecht, on January 29 Compass reported that Jordan had deported and denied residence permits to at least 27 foreign Christian individuals and families in 2007. On February 20 the acting foreign minister, Judeh, read a statement by the Council of the Church Leaders of Jordan condemning the Compass report.

Following Judeh's statements about foreign groups that "broke the law and did missionary activities," the Jordanian parliament on Thursday (February 21) passed a resolution condemning the Compass article, Lamprecht says.

"We categorically condemn and reject the false report which is aimed at damaging Muslim-Christian relations in Jordan," the lower house of parliament said, according to Agence France-Presse.

More Deportations

Lamprecht writes: "While it was unclear what the government considered false in the report, the fact of deportations of Christians was further verified as authorities on February 10 expelled an Egyptian pastor with the Assemblies of God church in Madaba - one of five evangelical denominations registered with the government."

He cites the example of Sadeq Abdel Nour who is married to a Jordanian citizen and the father of two children, who was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken to the port city of Aqaba. There he was placed on a ferry to Egypt.

"The previous week an Egyptian pastor from a Baptist church in Zarqa was arrested, held for three days and also returned to Egypt by ship from the port city of Aqaba," Lamprecht says.

The pastor, 43, is married to a Jordanian woman and the father of three Children, he said.

Lamprecht continued: "Additionally, a foreign Christian studying Arabic left Jordan on February 18 after intelligence police ordered her to exit the country by February 20. Officers accused the student of studying Arabic to conceal her work evangelizing Muslims, based on the fact that she attended an Arabic-speaking church.

"Authorities did not provide a written explanation for the deportation of either of the two Egyptian pastors. A government minister contacted by Compass failed to respond to multiple requests for information regarding the expulsions."

Pastors from both the Assemblies of God and Baptist denominations, officially recognized by Jordanian authorities, declined to comment on the incidents, Lamprecht said.

But he says a member of the Council of the Church Leaders of Jordan, which includes clergy from the Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches, confirmed the deportations.

"The government said they have their own reasons to kick them out, but personally I don¹t know why," said council secretary John Nour.

Government Urged Council's Statement

Lamprecht reports that Nour said an official from Jordan's Foreign Ministry had approached the council, Jordan's highest Christian body, requesting that it respond to accusations of increased pressure on foreign Christians printed in the January 29 Compass article.

"They gave us a paper about why [the foreigners] have been deported," Nour told Compass by telephone from Amman. "None of them were working legally under a church name, and if they were working under a [registered] church in the country, they were not doing what they were supposed to do."

The bishops' February 4 response, posted in English on Jordan's U.S. embassy website until it was removed several days later, received widespread coverage in Arabic media, Lamprecht said.

He writes that the statement said that errors in the Compass article "distort the truth and harm relations between Muslim and Christian citizens." But, says Lamprecht, other than disagreeing on the number of Christians in Jordan, 4 percent as opposed to 3 percent, and denying claims that local Christians feared the government might regress on its policy of religious tolerance, the statement failed to identify any specific inaccuracies in the Compass article.

Contacted about the council's statement, Lamprecht says Nour complained that the article failed to obtain comment from a council member or from a government official regarding the missionary accusations, although the January 29 story did quote a Jordanian official who requested that his name not be used.

The head of Jordan and Palestine's lay Orthodox council told Compass that the article was incorrect in its claims that religious freedom in Jordan was under threat, Lamprecht said.

"We Christians in Jordan have all the rights and freedoms of every citizen," Dr. Raouf Abu Jaber said from Amman.

According to Lamprecht, the February 4 statement denounced around 40 foreign groups that it said came to Jordan under the "guise of charitable organizations" and were a "threat to public security."

"It was not against the [local] evangelical people," Nour said. "The evangelical churches have a lot of respect here from the traditional churches and from the government."

Lamprecht stated that the Baptists, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God and Free Evangelicals have been in the country for decades and are registered with the government.

He continues: "As the two deportations earlier this month showed, however, the government opposition is not limited to missionaries unaffiliated with the five registered evangelical denominations. Nour said that foreign missionaries even with permission to work under registered evangelical churches had been deported for breaking the law by passing out Bibles in Muslim areas."

"Here the religion of the country is Islam, and according to the law you are not allowed to go out and reach Muslims," Nour said. But he later modified this statement, saying that everyone was free to share his faith with anyone who came to a church to request information.

Further questioned by Lamprecht about Jordanian law, Nour specified that all Jordanian citizens were guaranteed freedom of religion as long as it did not "interfere with other religions."

Lamprecht states that Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, however, grants the inherent right to "manifest" one's faith privately or publicly, whether requested or not. "This may be one reason that Jordan's restrictive policies operate in practice even though the law does not forbid specific evangelistic activities, for, as one legal expert told Compass, nowhere in Jordanian law is passing out Bibles or evangelizing members of another faith forbidden," he writes.

Lamprecht states: "The U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom in Jordan also points out this contradictory reality regarding the right to proclaim one's faith in the country."

"There is no statute that expressly forbids proselytism of Muslims," notes the state department report, but "the government prohibits conversion from Islam and proselytization of Muslims." In an indication of legal reality in Jordan, the report notes that a convert from Islam to Christianity convicted of apostasy in 2004 was stripped of his civil rights and made a ward of state.

Many of those deported in 2007 told Compass that they were questioned by intelligence police about alleged evangelistic activity among Muslims, Lamprecht says.

He states that Dr. Jaber of Jordan's Orthodox lay council explained that Jordan's traditional churches generally reject the idea of evangelizing Muslims, or vice versa, in order to preserve mutual respect between the religions.

"We [Christians] are well represented on all levels of government, and therefore we would like to keep this balanced society," Dr. Jaber said. "To co-exist we must have a respect."

Lamprecht writes: "The doctor said that evangelists from the United States who came to Jordan to preach often caused problems by angering Muslims and Christians alike and breaking the law. But he said he was unaware of which specific law forbade preaching to members of another faith."

Seminary Harassed

Following the council's statement, says Lamprecht, Al-Jazeera and Saudi newspaper Al-Watan claimed on February 17 that the Jordanian government had decided that it would expel 40 Christian missionary groups. The government minister did not respond when contacted by Compass regarding the claims.

In his comments to parliament, acting Foreign Minister Judeh did not identify any groups that had been carrying out "illegal" missionary activities. Neither did he specify the details of these activities, Lamprecht writes.

He adds that in an apparent reference to the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS), the church council said it had asked the government not to allow foreign missionary groups to establish a "theological institute" in Jordan.

"They attract poor and unemployed youths, drawing them from our churches, and tempting them with facilitations and missionary jobs in Jordan and various Arab countries," the February 4 statement said.

Lamprecht reports that at least 10 foreign students attending JETS were denied entry and deported last August and September while returning for the 2007-2008 academic year. Though recognized by several international accrediting organizations, the seminary has been rebuffed in its attempts to acquire official accreditation under Jordan¹s Ministry of Higher Education.

He adds that JETS eventually registered under the Ministry of Culture in 1995, five years after its inception, but the government continued to regularly deny a number of its foreign students and professors residency. Many have been forced to enter the country on tourist visas and have overstayed the time limit in order to complete their studies.

"Why speak against a theological institute?" wrote JETS President Imad Shehdeh in an online response to the church council¹s statement. "To the good name of Jordan in the world, it is legally registered in the country and its programs accredited by international agencies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East."

Jordan's Position on Council of Churches Statement Regarding Evangelicals in Jordan

A statement issued by Merissa Khurma, Press Attache & Director of the Information Bureau of the Embassy of Jordan in Washingon, D.C., says: "Jordan strongly believes in religious tolerance and actively upholds the freedom of religion and worship. Jordan also plays an important role in protecting Christian patrimony in the Holy Land in Jordan and the occupied territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is determined to protect and preserve the historic ties between the Christians and Muslims based on our strong belief in the necessity for coexistence and mutual respect. Today, almost 3-4 percent of Jordan's population, which is Christian, holds 8 percent of the seats in Parliament in addition to prominent positions in the government, military and business sector."

The statement continues: "The Constitution and the laws in force in Jordan stress the right of the Christian churches to establish their own courts, with their own jurisdiction -- on par with the Muslims' Sharia Courts, in matters of Personal Status. Christians have the right to build their own churches and schools, and to establish charity organizations and hospitals; and they have the right to exercise their religious rites with complete freedom as long as this does not interfere with or harm other denominations.

"Jordan welcomes and encourages the humanitarian work by all denominations. Such important work contributes to the atmosphere of coexistence and respect between Christians and Muslims in Jordan and among Christian denominations. The Baptist School in Amman, founded in 1974 with two thousand students currently enrolled, is one important example of such efforts."

The statement goes on to say: "The rights and recognition of formal churches can be divided into different degrees of recognition for Christian groups and churches in Jordan. These categories determine the activities and privileges that the group or Church may benefit from. Christian groups not recognized as churches can nevertheless own land and establish cultural societies and charity organizations, but cannot acquire a license to proselytize, which is only granted to the four traditional churches that are recognized to do missionary work and that represent 95 percent of the more than 2000 year-old Christian community of Jordan.

"The government regularly meets and consults with members of the recognized Christian authorities to listen to their concerns and to find out how best to address these issues. In this respect, the Council of Church Leaders in Jordan had been complaining for many years about the role of missionary groups in Jordan and the proliferation of missionary work in the Kingdom by various foreign groups and organizations."

It continues: "The Government is under the obligation to consider the concerns of its Christian community as expressed by the Council of the Church Leaders in Jordan, which represents 95 percent of the community. In this regard, the government expects all Christian groups in Jordan to abide by its laws regarding proselytization and public order and in accordance to the rules and regulations that govern their stature and the work of members of their organizations."

In conclusion the statement says: "The government is also keen to foster and encourage important inter-Christian dialogue, synergy and harmony to protect the interests of the community as a whole and to guarantee the well being of its citizens, in addition to strengthening and preserving a vibrant Christian community in the Holy Land."

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