From ONE Magazine

Jordan’s Christian Shepherds

Young and old crowd the wooden pews of a village church in the south of Jordan one recent Sunday evening. The congregation waits with eager anticipation to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the Rev. Boulos Baqa’in, 56, an energetic priest closely connected to his flock.

Some of the elders proudly don their traditional white robe-like garb with matching head covering, or keffiyeh, topped by a thin black cord — a symbol of their Bedouin roots. The youth wear jeans and sneakers.

Despite differences in age and dress, the Christians of Ader’s St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church all agree on this: Their most pressing need is jobs for their youth. As local employment opportunities dry up, their university graduates look elsewhere for work, a factor endangering the future of the area’s rich Christian heritage.

“It was very difficult for my parents to see me go,” says 24-year-old Malik Hijazine, a member of the church who now works at a Christian school in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

“We discussed the situation together and I helped them with things in the house, so when I traveled the situation lightened,” he says.

Mr. Hijazine has returned to Ader for a week to help supervise a summer youth camp held at the church.

“It helps that I have a brother here for the moment, but my other brother and sister live and work in Aqaba, even farther south,” he says, with concern evident in his voice.

“Our area is economically depressed. There is nothing for the youth to look forward to here in terms of developments,” the young man explains. “Finding good employment is difficult, so you are forced to go to the capital to get work — or to Jordan’s sole port city of Aqaba.”

Others travel even farther away, often to the Arab Gulf countries, in search of jobs.

Mr. Hijazine hails from a prominent Christian Bedouin tribe that originated from the Hijaz, a region found in present-day western Saudi Arabia. The Hijazine have existed as a Christian tribe with an unbroken lineage originating long before the advent of Islam in the seventh century. Over time they moved northward, first to Jordan’s ancient rose-red city of Petra and then to the area around the city of Kerak, home to one of the largest Crusader castles in the Middle East.

“Many Catholic priests have come from the Hijazine family, at least 16 and many sisters over the last several decades,” says Ra’ed Bahou, regional director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in Amman. Ader and other nearby villages not far from Kerak, he says, have supplied the bulk of Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox priests and religious for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Most Jordanian Bedouin are Muslim. Past economic and social pressures encouraged large numbers to embrace Islam, especially after the tenth century. Yet, as with the Hijazine, there remain Jordanian tribes such as the Akasheh, Halaseh, and Baqa’in who have clung to their Christian faith throughout the centuries. Christians and Muslims live together in Kerak, and the surrounding villages of Ader and Raba. But the nearby hamlets of Smakieh and Hmoud are believed to be the last remaining Christian villages in Jordan.

In these communities, an ancient way of life is rapidly vanishing as a young generation moves on, leaving behind parents and grandparents facing an uncertain future. Yet the Christian faith that has served as their stronghold for centuries continues to offer these villagers support and hope — in ways their ancestors could never have imagined.

Softly rolling hills parched by the summer sun hug an enchanting roadside linking Ader and Smakieh, where one will find the occasional shepherd, looking as though he has stepped straight out of a story from the New Testament.

Sheep running down a hilltop through a dry field — becoming enveloped in a haze of dust — are all that disturbs the quiet stillness of the pastoral scene.

In Smakieh, elders at the St. George Melkite Greek Catholic church meet with the Rev. Ayham Ziyadeh, 34, to discuss local concerns. Outside, boisterous children and teens chat and play before the liturgy.

“In 15 or 20 years, you won’t find anyone left in these villages, says 58-year-old Kamal Akasheh. “Most of our sons and daughters must leave to the big cities to find jobs there.”

Mr. Akasheh has lived his entire life in the village, which also contains a Roman Catholic church, a tiny grocery and a handful of other shops.

“If you take a tour of Smakieh now, you’ll find about 20 houses without any inhabitants,” the white-haired man says.

“You’ll find another 15 to 20 houses whose residents stay perhaps two or three days of the week, with the rest of their time spent in Amman.”

These changes correspond to shifts in the economy. At one time, residents could count on having a full career without uprooting.

“I am now retired, but I was an English teacher,” Mr. Akasheh says.

In his retirement, he still keeps busy. “Now I am a farmer, but my children won’t work as farmers. That’s why I say the near future looks grim.”

The fear Mr. Akasheh expresses is common among the elders, who want their children to remain nearby.

“In some years, their parents will pass away. And then what will happen here? The young will remain in the city.”

Mjalle Bawalsah, a 55-year-old who still works as an English teacher, says the villagers’ Christian faith helps support them in these troubled times, but they also need practical help.

“If we were not believers, we wouldn’t stay here. We are proud to have a village with all Christians, one of the last in the south. Although we are frustrated, we are proud to be Christians in this desert land, far from civilization and everything,” Mr. Bawalsah adds.

“We suffer like saints,” he says, perhaps a reference to the Desert Saints of the early church. “But we want to keep our village,” he adds.

“We want to see more people live here, to build homes and lives. That would be so much better for us.”

Retired bank employee Jamal Massadeh, 58, says no businesses are setting up shop in the region: “There’s no chance to be employed.”

When asked to describe their daily life, he and his friends laugh. “There is nothing to do — no projects, no business, no future. If there were opportunities and projects then we, others and our families could actually work,” says Mr. Massadeh.

Often, the elderly of the villages while away their hours sitting outside, weather permitting, and chatting or watching television.

However, this tide may yet turn. Fathers Baqa’in and Ziyadeh, in cooperation with CNEWA, are working on an initiative that could reverse the fortunes of the local population through new skills and technologies.

“We want to be able to fish. This is what we need,” says Father Baqa’in, referring to the well-known proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

CNEWA has introduced a powerful internet connection between its Pontifical Mission Community Center in Amman and that of Ader’s Melkite Greek Catholic parish church to provide education on pertinent health, education and cultural issues, as well as training in practical skills — such as information technology — by professionals in these fields based in Amman.

Because of Ader’s status as a de facto hub, equidistant to Kerak and the other villages by some nine miles, the village is well suited to reach these various small communities.

“This is how we will open up these villages to the outside world,” says Ra’ed Bahou, regional director of CNEWA in Amman. Mr. Bahou says such a program should be conducted in a practical way, tailored to what the residents feel they need most.

“There will be interaction,” he says. “If it works, we’ll do it in other villages.”

Mr. Bahou bills this undertaking as time sensitive, and says action is required now. “We want these villages to survive, and for the people to adjust with what’s going in Amman and the rest of the world.”

These changes elsewhere include the use of technology to introduce innovation and overcome isolation, changes he sees as a source of hope.

“Ending isolation, providing useful information and opening the eyes of the villagers to new opportunities and new perspectives could help reanimate these communities.

“Maybe they can create jobs from their houses, thanks to the information superhighway.”

Mr. Bahou explains that being able to remain in Kerak and the surrounding villages would allow people to enjoy cheaper living expenses, while perhaps earning as much as they would in Amman. In that way, their income would go even further, spared steep rents and other costs.

Needless to say, there are familial and church ties that make such an initiative appealing to these Christians, as well as their Muslim neighbors.

“Emotionally, these people want to remain and live in their villages and to be near their families,” he says of the more than 1,300 Christian families — some 8,000 individuals — in the Kerak governorate.

“This is a project for all: the elderly, youth, women and men. It may be hard at first, but they know now with social media and outside connections of the need to adapt to this new era,” Mr. Bahou says. “I believe people will be happy, especially the pensioners.

“No one,” he adds, “is working for the elderly.”

Mr. Bahou says that CNEWA has been involved in the area since the early 1950’s promoting pastoral, developmental and catechetical projects. Among these have been the renovation and restoration of churches as well as income generation projects such as sheep breeding and truck rentals.

“We have helped these communities for decades and want to continue our support of the local churches here,” he says of the villages whose sons and daughters serve the church worldwide as priests, religious and lay leaders.

In December 2016, six young Jordanian men sympathetic to ISIS carried out a terrorist attack in Kerak, killing a Canadian tourist and 13 Jordanians. The assault jolted the nearby Christians and Muslim communities alike, which have a long history of mutual respect and cooperation.

To promote continued faith and hope in the community, Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil visited the region in January on behalf of the Canadian Catholic bishops. CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, and CNEWA’s Canadian national director, Carl Hétu, joined him — the first non-Jordanian civilians to visit the area in the wake of the terrible incident.

“Although the Christian communities near Kerak are somewhat isolated, all know what is happening to their brothers and sisters of the faith in Iraq and Syria,” recalls Mr. Hétu. “Our visit was intended to express our solidarity and our commitment to the region for the long haul.”

At the grassroots level, Father Baqa’in strives to keep his parish and community healthy, hopeful and prosperous. He sees the new internet training program as critical to this aim, and has been a driving force behind it.

“Fresh ideas and thinking are wonderful for the old. We also hope to offer skills for the youth and allow job prospects to take root in the villages,” the priest says.

“In Amman, people find that it’s all about business, with few social relationships. But in the villages, there are relationships between all the Christians and our neighbors. We hope to find plenty of work for them,” says Father Baqa’in.

Smakieh’s Father Ziyadeh agrees, adding: “We are interested in improving our church and our lives — everything.”

Parishioners, too, are excited about the possibilities.

Nasreen Moukieen, 32, believes technological training will prove invaluable. She and many of her neighbors are eager for the planned seminars on medical and dietary issues, as they have the usual health concerns as they age.

In this region, Sameh Kowaleed says, “no real possibilities for entertainment centers, clubs or gardens to socialize exist.” The 42-year-old hopes the initiative will provide “a fresh wave of opportunity, culture and creativity to the people of the south.”

Shammas Safwan Ziyadeh, 28, says he was among the few lucky youth in Ader to find a job there with the Catholic charity Caritas, aiding Syrian refugees sheltering in the area.

“When I tried to find work here, it was extremely difficult. But the initiative would be a great help to everybody and wonderful legacy for the Kerak region as a whole,” he says.

“Christians are the lighthouse for the entire region,” says Atef Baqa’in, one of the Ader parish elders.

“Our Muslim neighbors tell us so, saying we have commitment and moral character,” adds the 64-year-old.

“Pope Francis has remarked to the effect that the Middle East without Christians is not the Middle East,” says Ader’s Melkite Greek Catholic pastor, Father Baqa’in.

“We want to remain in our land. We want to remain in our country,” he adds, underscoring the importance of seizing this opportunity quickly.

Mr. Bahou agrees, and affirms his commitment to see it through.

“Jordan is the Holy Land. We tell our friends in the West that, and of the need to support the local Christian communities who have flourished here since the church began,” Mr. Bahou says.

“Otherwise at the end, each one will make the decision to leave, and that will be the end.”

Based in the Middle East, Dale Gavlak has reported for CNEWA from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.