Ever since I grew up in the city of As-Salt, patriotism and church services went hand in hand in our family. My father, Ayoub Rihani, who was born at the turn of the 20th century witnessed the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan under the Hashemite Emire. At one time dad was assigned to guard Jordan’s founder His Royal Highness Prince Abdullah I. He was one of the first members of the security forces in the 1920s. His number was 9 in the newly established Trans Jordan Army.
At the same time, my dad was active in the Orthodox Church. He was a member of the choir in al-Huson Orthodox church and was known to have a strong and very beautiful voice. He played the accordion, trumpet, clarinet, and was one of the members of the first Jordan military musical band established in 1921, with a core of ten musicians all members of the Arab Army.
My father was not satisfied with being a churchgoer and was eager to learn more about our faith. The Orthodox liturgy at the time was in Greek, and he had no access to an Arabic Bible which only priests had.
All this changed when my dad went to Jerusalem. During his studies, he had access to an Arabic Bible and learned a lot from Jerusalem-based British and American missionaries from the Assemblies of God (AG) Church. Later my dad would be ordained as an AG pastor and he helped plant a church in Ramallah, in As-Salt, and another one in our hometown of Al Huson.
My dad was also an educator. He set up three schools in the north of Jordan one of them was a joint Roman Orthodox and Assemblies of God school. In going through our home library, I spotted a school certificate for one of the students who graduated from that school who was from the Khasawneh tribe. I shared this document with our current prime minister Bisher al-Khasawneh recently.
Over the years my father was involved in the establishment of Assemblies of God churches in Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. After the 1948 war, he focused largely on Jordan and the West Bank.
In 1942, the Assemblies of God church and school in As-Salt grew in membership with more than 250 students attending. Back then, Prince Abdullah officially recognized the Assemblies of God denomination, one of five evangelical churches, serving in Jordan.
In the meantime, although I studied civil and environmental engineering and was involved in the health care business, I took up middle eastern and biblical studies in Dallas and I was later ordained as an AG pastor. Working closely with my dad, I was involved in registering Assemblies of God church property as a religious waqf (endowment) which means it is only to be used for church and church-related services.
Unlike traditional churches with strict hierarchies, evangelicals are decentralized and they give member churches a wide range of independence. Nevertheless, the Assemblies of God Church of Jordan which I later was asked to lead, took on the responsibility for regulating the work of its members and resolving issues with the government. As a registered church whose registration was published in the official gazette decades ago, we have had the full support of the Jordanian authorities. We enjoy custom and tax-free status, and contributions to our church by our members are accepted as being tax-deductible. We issue marriage and baptismal certificates and the government duly records all these issues in the official registry.
I have often asked my dad why the Assemblies of God Church and other evangelical churches didn’t join other traditional churches in setting up an ecclesiastical court. He told me that the courts are for cases of divorce and inheritance. “We don’t believe in divorce and inheritance law is standard to all Jordanians based on Islamic sharia’ distribution of inheritance,” he would say.
Recently the absence of an ecclesiastical court to resolve member’s personal status issues, such as divorce and inheritance, has become a problem for us and other evangelical churches. Since 2014 when parliament passed law #28 regulating issues related to Christian citizens, a problem has surfaced. The law lists 11 denominations as official church denominations while the law refers to the existence of citizens who are not members of these official denominations. The law states, for example in articles 6, 7, 8 & 9 that Christian citizens who have no ecclesiastical court can use other church courts or regular courts for their personal status issues.
Recently an effort by the Orthodox church caused a storm. Orthodox Archbishop Christophorus Atallah wrote on January 26th the head of the Judicial Council asking that Christians who have no ecclesiastical courts should not be allowed to use the regular courts. This is a clear violation of the 2014 law. The head of the Judicial Council initially agreed to the request only to backtrack due to the public pressure that our evangelical churches had produced.
What was most hurtful in this episode was the attempts by the Orthodox leader to defame our churches. In the same letter, he stated: “There are great dangers from the teachings and ideas that are disseminated by these groups that are being spread within the Christian society,” the archbishop wrote. “These are strange ideas that depart from our Christian faith and the national identity of the local church.” In addition, Atallah said, “these groups are funded from abroad and have outside and unclear agendas and we have reservations about them.”
Our churches are totally self-sufficient and we receive no administrative funding from anyone for our pastors and our churches. We do, however, facilitate a great deal of funding for humanitarian projects in education, health refugee issues, prison visits, and help to the elderly and the orphans.
In 2007, five evangelical churches (Baptists, AG, Evangelical Free, Alliance, and Nazarenes) with about 10,000 members established the Jordan Evangelical Council that aims to coordinate our affairs both internally and externally.
Among our external efforts as a council, we opposed the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem and have repeatedly expressed our unconditional support for the Hashemite custodianship of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
Our Council has been diligently seeking to be added to the annex of official churches but with little success We strongly believe that as citizens we deserve equal treatment. Our rights are clearly codified in the sixth article of the Jordanian constitution. “Jordanians shall be equal before the law. There shall be no discrimination between them as regards to their rights and duties on grounds of race, language, or religion.”
Jordan has protected and safeguarded the rights of Christian citizens to practice their faith in freedom since the establishment of the Transjordan emirate. My dad and others were among those supporting and defending Jordan and its Hashemite founders nearly one hundred years ago.
As Jordan celebrates its centennial on April 11th, we call on His Majesty King Abdullah II to respond to our repeated request to be added to the annex of the 2014 Christian Councils law and to be allowed to establish our own ecclesiastical courts.
The author is the head of the Assemblies of God Church-Jordan.