In Jordan's King Abdullah, Washington saw the kinder, gentler face of the Arab world.
Arriving last month to accept an honorary doctorate from Georgetown University, the 43-year-old monarch told American reporters he supports democracy movements spreading from Iraq to Lebanon.
His visit to Washington came just as Arab leaders gathered in Algiers without him. The king skipped a regional summit of the Arab League, even though the most talked-about item on the agenda was a Jordanian peace proposal that for the first time dropped Arab demands that Israel cede all lands it acquired in the 1967 war. Rather than tussle with contentious Arab comrades, he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and gave interviews with American reporters. His message: "Islam honors every human being, without distinction of color, race, or religion." Terrorists who struck the United States and elsewhere, he said, "have nothing to do with Islam."
But even as the king projects a more tolerant Islamic face, his record at home does not yet reflect the progressive image.
Ask Samer and Abeer. Last September Jordanian security police connected to the country's Mukhabarat, or intelligence agency, showed up at the couple's home unannounced. They arrested Samer and detained him overnight. Samer's crime: coming to faith in Jesus Christ 14 years ago. Originally a Muslim, Samer over the years since his conversion has been questioned several times by security police but never detained. This time, the police turned him over to the Islamic courts.
Jordan is a constitutional monarchy in name only, with an elected parliament whose decisions are subject to royal fiat and a judicial system that continues to impose strict penalties under Islamic, or Shariah, law. Apostasy, or religious conversion, is rarely punished but remains illegal. Church leaders in Amman say they know of two Muslim-background Christians now in prison because they became Christians, both non-Jordanians and one in solitary confinement.
At his October hearing, Samer was asked to "alter his confession," or recant his Christian faith. He refused. Officials set another court date. In the meantime, Samer made precautionary arrangements for Abeer, his wife, and their 18-month-old son to leave Jordan. (Samer's wife once spent six years in prison before she was taken in by a Christian family and came to faith in Jesus Christ.) At a November hearing before the Islamic court, an exasperated judge told Samer, "We don't know what to do with you." He implored him, saying, "You cannot be a Christian, you must come back to Islam." Samer again refused.
The judges convicted Samer of apostasy. In a Nov. 23 decision the court decreed that his identification papers must be changed from "Muslim" to "no religion"; that he had forfeited any inheritance; that his marriage to Abeer is now illegal, and therefore he is not entitled to custody of his son. The court delivered its decision-finalized in writing only last month-in the name of King Abdullah.
Religious identity laws in Jordan and other largely Muslim countries are the coda to basic human rights. Denied a new religious identity, Samer cannot hold a job, maintain custody of his son, retain legal title in his marriage, or own property. He is regarded as an apostate, and other Muslims can legally attack-even kill-Samer.
Afeef Halaseh, a pastor in Jordan and head of Arabs for the Arabs, has hired a lawyer to bring the case before Jordan's Supreme Court. International human-rights advocates have intervened, sending 4,000 cabled messages from Norway alone to King Abdullah. But whether Samer is to face further punishment or pardon is anyone's guess. Two brothers have threatened his life; Samer has changed his mobile phone number and is in hiding. Mr. Halaseh himself was summoned to appear before security police for questioning last week.
"Samer is surprised at the place he finds himself, the object of so much prayer and attention," said one fellow Christian whom WORLD is not identifying because of the current dangers. "He feels like he is just a normal guy making the only choice possible to him."