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Middle East

Jordanian Evangelicals Push for Official Recognition

Government status would help streamline outreach and foreign partnerships—and alleviate some outside concerns about their churches.
Jordanian Evangelicals Push for Official Recognition
Image: luisrsphoto / Getty Images
Amman, Jordan

Evangelicals in Jordan have a new leader. They just don’t have anything official for him to lead yet.

Five denominations, including Baptists, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Free, Nazarene, and Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) churches, met a month ago to elect Habes Nimat as president of the Jordanian Evangelical Council. They comprise 57 churches total.

“I would like to believe that they chose me because I am a team player,” said Nimat, who has led a CMA congregation in the capital city of Amman since 2017. “I have good relations with the evangelical society, the local society, and they know my work with Christians of all denominations.”

Established in 2006, the council is the fruit of nearly 100 years of evangelical outreach in Jordan. Numbering roughly 10,000 individuals, evangelicals remain a small minority among the 2.2 percent of Christians in Jordan’s overall population of 10 million, almost exclusively Sunni Muslims.

Nimat will need to rely on these good relations to achieve the most pressing evangelical concern—legal recognition of the council as an official Christian denomination.

Jordan currently recognizes 11 Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.

They are organized into the official Council of Church Leaders (CCL), which functions as a government advisory body. The prime minister will confer with the CCL on whether or not to admit new representation.

“We have been working on registration for many years as one body,” said Nimat, “but so far, we have not heard an answer from them, neither positive nor negative.”

Representation on the CCL entitles the denomination to seek a royal decree to form an ecclesiastical court for family affairs—marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Currently the evangelical churches work primarily through the Anglican Church to register such documents with the government or go through the civil court system.

But relations with the traditional churches of Jordan have not always been friendly. According to the 2018 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report, some CCL leaders complain about “recruitment efforts” of the members by evangelical churches. Others say the evangelicals disturb interfaith harmony with Muslims, complicating relations with the government and security services.

This is exactly why an evangelical council is needed.

“The government sees our five churches as evangelicals, but they don’t know who to deal with,” Nimat said. “Many pastors feel they are free to do what they want because there is no legal authority.”

Individual churches have cultivated relationships with organizations in the West, without regard to denominational leadership, let alone a national council, he explained. Well-meaning foreigners, unable to register their organizations independently, then bring money, programs, and ideas about evangelism under the umbrella of a local church.

Because it is a church, the government treads carefully, Nimat said. But if trouble comes up, there is no recognized entity for officials to turn to, resulting in confusion. Traditional churches have a patriarch, bishop, or other hierarchy. Evangelical churches tend to be fiercely independent.

Often known collectively as the “American churches,” Jordanian evangelicals have made great strides in respecting the red lines of the culture.

“Don’t cause trouble for the police, and they will leave you alone and expect you to take care of your own problems,” said Philip Madanat, a political consultant belonging to the Baptist denomination. He noted the government treats many Muslim organizations the same way. “I evangelize wherever I go, amicably, and in personal contact with people I know. I’m 57-years-old and nothing has ever happened to me.”

Madanat explained that some evangelical ministries present the gospel at the same time they offer relief to needy individuals. This is often viewed as manipulation by the larger society.

Certain offenses can compel the security services to get involved, as has been the case when foreign workers are expelled.

Inaction on official church requests may not be from persecution, however, but fear of risk.

“The government has too many other headaches to care about the evangelicals,” he said. “An official may not want to open a file that is unusual to him, when it could impact Jordan’s image in the outside world.”

CT previously reported several cases that straddle this reality. Open Doors ranks Jordan No. 31 on its list of the 50 places where it is hardest to be a Christian.

A council could help, in Madanat’s view, but it could also cause different problems among evangelicals themselves.

“Biblically we have no hierarchy, so I am worried about this registration,” he said. “Will future leaders consider themselves like a patriarch?”

David Rihani, who was reelected as vice-president of the Jordanian Evangelical Council, assures that the bylaws will prevent this.

The five churches submit five delegates each to the council’s general assembly. Any one can be elected president for a three-year term, reelected once. Each church then selects one representative to serve on the executive board of seven, with two other members elected to join them.

The president presents a yearly report at the general assembly, which can vote for a new election to remove him, if necessary.

“The council head is a servant to the churches, and each one can rest in knowing they have support,” Rihani said. “But in our culture, how can you deal with 57 churches, each one moving in its own direction? Are we being responsible in our independence? Sometimes, the answer is no.”

Even so, great strides have been made in the last seven years under the presidency of General Imad Maayah, a member of the Evangelical Free Chuch. A military man and former member of parliament, he was elected to lead the group in part so his official connections might help improve relations with the government.

Though lacking an official council, the five evangelical churches had been registered as religious entities under the Ministry of Justice. In 2018, Maayah helped additionally register them under the Ministry of Interior, aiding security connections.

A year earlier he led Jordanian evangelicals in a unity agreement with their counterparts in the West Bank and in the Galilee region of Israel. And in 2019 they joined with traditional churches in a Christian festival held by the Bible Society of Jordan, capping steadily improved relations with the Catholics, Orthodox, and other CCL churches.

“We live in a country that is Islamic by law, but we have a great degree of freedom compared to our neighbors,” Maayah said. “Still, there is a ceiling to this freedom.”

To any critical Americans, he reminds that the United States also has its red lines—such as religion in public schools. And despite great relations with America and American Christians, sometimes US policy can create trouble in Jordan.

Among a 20-point list of accomplishments during Maayah’s leadership of the council, Rihani listed its open letter to President Trump. The evangelical leaders warned against moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, pleading that he listen to King Abdullah.

Nimat said that it is not the role of the council to make statements on political affairs, but that this matter touched their identity as Jordanian citizens.

And as President Trump is waiting for electoral clarity in Tel Aviv before unveiling the long-awaited Deal of the Century for peace between Israel and Palestine, he repeats a similar plea.

“Seek the advice and the wisdom of Middle East leaders that promote peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians,” he said. “King Abdullah is that kind of a leader, and we trust him.” (CT reported on Jordanian evangelicals’ perception of their country’s leadership and religious tolerance when King Abdullah received the Templeton Prize last year.)

Such trust has aided Nimat so far. Five years ago he created the Alliance Academy of Jordan, the first Jordanian school to fully integrate disabled students. It has won the praise of government officials, with whom he is working to craft a national integration strategy.

Located in Yadoudeh, 10 miles south of Amman in a poor, Muslim-majority area, this past week he inaugurated a new CMA church. Ravi Zacharias even came to speak.

“The role of the church is to provide the best that it has for the advancement of the nation and the citizen,” said Nimat. “Every Christian is called by God to be an influence on the world around them, showing the unconditional love of Christ through good deeds.”

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