Surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel-and about the size of Maine? If that described the country you governed, you might be paranoid, too. Or at least security conscious. Some are suggesting that may be what's behind the recent crackdown on foreign Christian workers in Jordan. Because authorities there must practice a precarious balancing act between Islamic extremist groups and a pluralistic West, they from time to time arrest and deport Christian workers to demonstrate they are not in the pocket of Western organizations.
Jordan's King Abdullah II is in the United States this week and on Tuesday will meet with President George Bush. Christian human rights activists are calling on the president to confront the Jordanian king about his country's expulsion of dozens of evangelical Christians when the two leaders meet at the White House.
In 2007 Jordan deported and denied residence permits to at least 27 foreign Christian individuals and families. Most had been working in Jordan for some time and had legal documentation. More recently, on Feb. 10 the government expelled an Egyptian pastor with the Assemblies of God church, one of five evangelical denominations registered with the government. Married to a Jordanian citizen and the father of two children, Sadeq Abdel Nour was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken to the port city of Aqaba. There he was placed on a ferry to Egypt, according to a report from Compass Direct News Service.
The previous week an Egyptian pastor from a Baptist church in Zarqa was arrested, held for three days and also returned to Egypt by ship from the port city of Aqaba. The pastor, 43, is married to a Jordanian woman and the father of three children.
In addition to Egyptian clergy, those deported include U.S. citizens and Europeans, as well as workers from Sudan, South Korea, and Iraq. And the new restrictions come at a time when Jordan, at least on paper, has improved its laws protecting religious freedom. Jordan has long officially approved Christian organizations, even granting missionary permits to foreign workers, which are renewed annually. And in 2006 Jordan published a law protecting the right publicly or privately for a citizen or legal resident to "manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching," even though such freedom may be subject to limitations prescribed by law to protect public "order."
Christian Solidarity International representative Keith Roderick told WORLD that President Bush should "highlight the issue of the deportations" with King Abdullah. "Since they are meeting and since it has become an international issue, we believe it should be discussed at this level," Roderick said Mar. 3. "Many Jordanian evangelicals want to try to handle each case individually, but that does not mean we should ignore this opportunity. I think there is some education that needs to be going on with the king about how important it is to U.S. Christians. The fact of the matter is that in Jordan it is not illegal to proselytize or distribute Bibles."
Last October, as part of a mission to Jordan dealing with Iraqi refugees, Roderick and his team raised the deportation cases with Jordanian officials in the General Intelligence Department. Roderick was told that only those who "violated residency and were working without work permits" had been deported. But a detailed report issued Jan. 29 in Compass News Direct indicated otherwise. Many deportees said they were given no explanation for being expelled.
A Finnish pastor had received a year-long work permit as an Assembly of God pastor last September but was arrested at a gas station in December, held for two days, then deported without explanation. Jordanian officials sent his wife and two young sons home a week later.
A U.S. citizen who had worked in Jordan with a local church since 1999 had his yearly residence permit application rejected for the first time last year and was rejected by border police when he left the country and tried to return on a one-month tourist visa.
"The [U.S.] embassy thought it was my fault, that it was imprudent of me to leave the country when my residence permit had been denied," the worker told Compass. "My only other option would have been staying in the country illegally, which I didn't feel comfortable doing."
Mostly private concern among foreigners living in Jordan translated into public controversy after the Jan. 29 report. Arab news services Al Jazeera and Al Watan claimed that the Jordanian government planned to expel more foreign Christians. Jordan's acting Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh admitted the deportations in a presentation to Jordan's parliament Feb. 19, but told deputies: "Foreign groups have come to Jordan under the cover of doing charitable work, but they broke the law and did missionary activities." The deputies voted to condemn the Compass Direct report. The government also pressured members of the Council of the Church Leaders of Jordan, which includes clergy from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian churches, to condemn the report. But so far the government has not provided evidence that the deportees were in violation of Jordanian law.