Cover Story

FAITH & WORKS

Christians aid Muslims outside the glare of Western journalists bent on uncovering a new crusade. In Jordan, Red Crescent officials clearly don't want Christians credited for helping those displaced by the war in Iraq. That's just fine by the relief workers. The idea is for someone else to get the credit, anyway

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

The chow line starts out the same as it always does. Refugees queue up outside the big tent holding their white plastic buckets with red handles and lids. Once inside, out of the howling wind, they stop first to register in a spiral-bound notebook. Then they progress around the horseshoe-shaped buffet, picking up the usual staples: flat bread, rice, yogurt, pickles.

The fried meat is the first sign that today is something special. Residents of the Ruweished camp receive one hot meal a day, usually something along the lines of macaroni and cheese or baked beans. Today's entree-a cross between meat loaf and beef jerky-is clearly better than most. But it's the last stop in line that has everyone buzzing. There are rainbow-colored eggs, chocolates wrapped in foil, and delicate little cookies filled with preserves.

It's safe to say that most of the 300 or so people in line have never celebrated Easter before. A few of the refugees are Christians from southern Sudan, but the majority are from solidly Muslim countries like Somalia or Djibouti. Fleeing the war in Iraq, they ended up at this tent city in the Jordanian desert where they're fed not by the government or by quasi-official Muslim charities but by Jordan's tiny evangelical community.

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The Jordanian Evangelical Committee for Relief and Development (JECRAD) budgeted for a literal feeding of the 5,000. Working with Christian charities such as World Relief and Tear Fund, JECRAD signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jordanian government, promising to provide food for up to 5,000 "third-country nationals" uprooted by the war.

No one else seemed concerned about this particular refugee population. With great fanfare, the UN and the Hashemite Charitable Organization poured millions of dollars into a camp down the road for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi nationals expected to flood into the kingdom. But the flood never amounted to more than a trickle, and Camp A, as it's known, is nothing but a well-funded, windblown ghost town.

Camp B never hit its capacity of 5,000 refugees, either, but thousands of Africans and Palestinians have come through in the past six weeks. At the height of the war, JECRAD fed about 600 refugees a day as they waited for the Iraq war to end or for paperwork to return to their native countries.

Such a large-scale relief project was a remarkable accomplishment for the evangelical community here. The government estimates that less than 5 percent of Jordan's 5 million residents are Christians. The vast majority of those are Greek Orthodox, with Roman Catholics coming in at No. 2. Evangelicals represent only a tiny fraction of the total population, perhaps no more than 10,000 in all, according to Youssef Hashweh, a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor.

Despite their small numbers, Christians in Jordan enjoy good relations with the Muslim majority, Mr. Hashweh says. "Jordan is a very balanced country. We feel the king respects the Christians. He does not allow the fanatics to do anything against us." Still, the war did put a strain on that relationship. Some Christians reported that their Muslim neighbors stopped speaking to them, and church services were often conducted under increased security. "It was tense during the war," Mr. Hashweh admits. "We were accused of being crusaders or Zionists sometimes."

The evangelicals' selfless work on behalf of Muslim refugees might have helped mitigate such hostility-if anyone outside the camp had known what JECRAD was doing. "The newspapers, the TV, they never mentioned us," says one evangelical leader who asked not to be named because of precarious relations with Muslim authorities. "The camp is always portrayed as being run by the Jordanian Red Crescent, even though we provided every single meal."

Indeed, authorities from the Red Crescent prohibited television crews from taping inside the kitchen at the Ruweished camp, lest Christian volunteers should be interviewed on the air. A banner inside the kitchen tent proclaiming JECRAD's sponsorship of the meals was removed by order of the Red Crescent authorities. Kitchen volunteers even had to don aprons bearing the Red Crescent logo, though some personalized the standard-issue uniform with hand-embellished crosses or the name of their church.

Vera Haddad, the major organizer and cheerleader behind JECRAD's efforts, never complains about such treatment by the authorities. She worries less about publicity than about the plight of those caught in a war, something she knows only too well. She was just 10 years old when her family's home was hit by a missile in Jordan's civil war. Until the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, she thought she had outgrown the terror of that night. But suddenly, with Iraqi Scud missiles flying overhead en route to Israel, all her old fears returned. Jordanians blacked out their windows, taped up the doors. The whole country was in a state of panic. "I was just terrified," she says, "paralyzed, really. I had two children, and they were young. It was so painful. I just wanted to get away."

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