When Christians in Mosul, Iraq were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or death at the hands of ISIS, which had taken over the country’s second largest city last year, most fled.
Among the first nations to open its borders to the refugees was Jordan. A group of religion journalists from North America, including this writer, met some of them last October at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Amman.
We were welcomed by Father Khalil Jaar, who told us that he considered the Christians from Mosul to be guests, not refugees. He believed that any country would be lucky to receive them. Many were well educated and dedicated to their faith.
The courage of these people, who left with little more than the clothes on their backs, was inspiring. Many of them told stories of heartbreak and loss.
Brothers Sief and Jacob Jebrita ran a small videography and photography business in a village just outside of Mosul. Six weeks after ISIS took over the village, they received a letter ordering them to stop work because what they did was forbidden under Islamic law. The brothers and their families were forced from their homes. They witnessed intimidation. A soldier ripped an earring out of a girl’s ear, causing it to split open, because jewelry was not acceptable under ISIS. They saw men killed for refusing to convert to Islam and women sold into slavery. Two of their neighbour’s children were killed.
They said there is no going back to Mosul, not only because of ISIS but because the relationship between Muslims and Christians has been shattered by the violence. Years of peace between the different religions and sects is over.
But the refugees had not given up hope. They prayed nightly and discussed their dreams for the future as they began to rebuild their lives. A common belief was that out of suffering could come good, thanks to their faith in God. Said one older woman: “Do you want a clearer miracle than this? We have lost everything, but we did not lose our faith.”
Fr. Jaar was a vocal and enthusiastic advocate for his guests. He worried about finding winter accommodation for them. The church was trying to find apartments for them in Amman. He has publicized their plight and is seeking funds to house and feed them. The children are attending classes at the school attached to the church. The refugees have communal meals twice a day, after noon and in the evening. The food is served from a makeshift kitchen.
We also met Father Nabil Haddad, a Jordanian Christian who is working for peace and reconciliation with Islam. A Melkite Catholic priest, Fr. Haddad says Jordan’s Christians, who make up the oldest Christian community in the world, have much to contribute to peace and reconciliation, despite being only two per cent of the Jordanian population. “We have been here since the day of Pentecost and we need to share with our Muslim brothers and sisters,” he said.
He announced a new initiative called Karama, using the Greek word for dignity. He believed that Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all faiths coming from Abraham – could find common ground by talking about dignity and respect for all humanity. “I grew up like an Arab Jordanian child, but in a devout Christian family. Islam is a part of our culture and civilization. But I learned to be a witness for Christianity.”
Since 2001, he has been especially active in interfaith work, trying to help Muslims and Christians work together through education. “We are a people of faith, love, mercy and respect. It is so rewarding to conquer someone’s ignorance with a Christian message of love.”