In May I hiked the length and breadth of Skye to raise funds for an expedition to Jordan in June. Armadale-based TV engineer and church youth leader, Archie MacCalman, and I went out to establish a twinning between Strath & Sleat Parish Church and St Paul’s, an Arabic-speaking congregation belonging to the Anglican diocese of Jerusalem. It all started with the eruption of the refugee crisis in 2015, precipitated by the civil war in Syria and the repercussions of the “Arab Spring”. Like many community groups, the elders of Strath & Sleat were anxious to help. A visit from the newly appointed Co-ordinator for Scottish Faiths Action for Refugees led to our seeking involvement at the sharp end, where the problem was being generated. At about the same time I was approached by the brother of a school friend, who was looking for a Scottish Church willing to partner with a Middle Eastern congregation pioneering respite camps. The idea is that Iraqi refugees are taken into the desert by Sunni Bedouins, in order to work through their experiences, facilitated by Jordanian Christians.
According to UN estimates, over three quarters of a million of Jordan’s population of 10 million are refugees, making it second only to Lebanon in density of refugees to general population. An even more harrowing statistic is that of Iraq’s Christian population of 1.5million (or 4% of the total population) only a quarter of a million remain and most of them are expected to leave over the next few years. For almost all, the route out is via Jordan. Not that they have an easy time of it. Officially they are guests in Jordan and so do not qualify for the emergency relief accorded to refugees. Yet nor are they allowed to work. Exiled and without status, they lodge where they can in the growing urban sprawl of Jordan’s capital, Amman. And here is where Archie and I met some of them.
It quickly became apparent that we were witnessing the exodus of an ancient community. Christians in Iraq go all the way back to the 1st century AD and the missionary endeavours of Thomas and Thaddeus, two of Jesus’ original apostles. To this day, many even speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus himself. Formerly, as director of a human rights organisation, I met refugees from Colombia to Burma and in just about every case their dream was eventually to return home. What struck us in Jordan was that none of the refugees we spoke to wanted anything other than repatriation to a third country. The hopelessness of their predicament in Jordan and the trauma they had experienced in Iraq had sealed their resolve. One family we visited at home spoke for so many we had already encountered. Having migrated into the city of Mosul from their home village on the Nineveh Plain, they fled on the arrival of Daesh (Islamic State). At first, their Muslim neighbours welcomed them home but, as Daesh’s grip fastened, that community solidarity which had bound Christians and Muslims for centuries shattered. Faced with the choice between forced conversion or losing everything, most Christians chose to flee – initially to the relative safety of Kurdish northern Iraq and then, when that proved no safer, to Jordan. We were informed that, back on the Nineveh Plain, a civil war is currently raging between Kurds and government forces in which the remaining Christians are regarded as scape-goats by both sides. But their plight is ignored.
In Jordan we were amazed by the response across the spectrum of Jordanian churches. From independent Evangelicals to Eastern Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics, media savvy clerics are mobilising their flocks to care for their desperate fellow believers. We met a diminutive Catholic priest who serves four congregations in different parts of Amman and gathers a hundred children for Sunday School on borrowed premises every week. A Protestant pastor showed us around a school he had established for traumatised and disabled children, a network of workshops for wood-turning, soap making, mosaic art and many other trades and a health clinic with barbershop, beautician and dental surgery. During Ramadan, the same church distributed thousands of gift boxes to their Muslim neighbours on their way home from work to break their fast. Each box contained fruit and snacks and was adorned with verses from the Bible and a message from King Abdullah II, exhorting good relations between Muslims and Christians.
Outreach across the religious divide remains a sensitive issue but we met converts from a Muslim background, confirming that the church continues to grow through conversion as well as the influx of refugees. Indeed migration has pushed many Jordanian Christians into the minority within their own congregations. On a foray into the south of the country, where the population is universally poor and Muslim, we were impressed with the witness of a western missionary who had adopted a Bedouin girl with multiple disabilities. Local practice is to leave such disadvantaged children to their fate in the desert, so her rescue is a striking example of grace-in-action. Nearby, another western mission has developed an environmental enterprise in which local women clean the beaches and make jewellery out of recycled litter for sale locally and overseas.
Archie and I were bowled over by the welcome and hospitality we received all over this extraordinary country. In one place we asked to take a shower. “Of course,” our host replied, “just be aware there is only a cubic metre of water left in the tank.” But we were also stung by what we heard of the fall-out from the West’s interference in the Middle East. Syrian Christians were especially frustrated by efforts to oust President Assad whom, they maintain, is the only leader capable and willing to maintain an environment in which religious minorities co-exist. It seems our assumption that the “Arab Spring” must be good news was misplaced, at least in the eyes of some. According to our Eastern friends it amounted to a smokescreen for Islamic extremists and oppressed minorities are already rejoicing in the re-establishment of Assad’s grip on power.
In terms of our own intentions, the next step is to host a return trip for the office-bearers of St Paul’s Church in Amman. In the meantime, there will be opportunities for volunteers to serve in the various refugee support initiatives we visited and participate in new educational exchanges.