Maroun Lahham: "In Jordan There Is a Lively Church Made Up of Solid Families"

by Carlo Giorgi, correspondent |  April 7, 2014

Archbishop Maroun Lahham (65), vicar for Jordan of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Archbishop Maroun Lahham, vicar for Jordan of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, is looking forward to 24th May, the day of the Pope’s arrival in Jordan, with trepidation. The Christians here are a small minority, about 220,000 out of just over 6 million inhabitants, 2.8-3% of the total population.

(Amman) – “We are working non-stop for the visit of Pope Francis: he wants to meet the poor, the disables, the ill, orphans and the elderly. He will meet 400 of them in Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus. This will be followed by a mass with 35,000 worshippers in the stadium in Amman. He will certainly come with his smile, his humility and his humanity. Nobody can predict what he will say: he will give us his surprises…».

The archbishop Maroun Lahham, vicar for Jordan of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, is looking forward to 24th May, the day of the Pope’s arrival in Jordan, with trepidation.

The Christians here are a small minority, about 220,000 out of  just over 6 million inhabitants, 2.8-3 per cent of the  total population. Of these 220,000. about half are Orthodox. Of the other half, about 80% are Catholics, mostly of the Latin rite (alongside a few tens of thousands  faithful of the Melkite rite). Many aspects of Monsignor Lahham’s own story coincide with that of his people: in Jordan, half of the population, Christians included, are of Palestinian origin and descend from the refugees of 1948 and 1967. The Lahham family comes from Haifa, in the present-day state of Israel. When, in the spring of 1948, the first Israeli-Arab war broke out, the bishop’s mother was six months pregnant. A few weeks later, having found refugee on the other side of the River Jordan, Maroun was born.

“The Christians of Jordan are a small but growing community,” the bishop explains, “one century ago, in the 1920s, there were about 15,000 of us, in the 1950s, we numbered 150,000 and today there are more than 200,000 of us. This number is growing in absolute terms, through decreasing as a percentage, because our Muslim fellow citizens have more children and grow more quickly.”

What is the identikit of the Catholic Church in Jordan?
It is a living church. The Christian family, for example, is still solid, far from the crisis that it is experiencing in the West: this evening in Amman I am meeting 59 young Christian couples who will soon be getting married; last week in Madaba I had a similar meeting with another 15 couples. We have the ecclesiastical court, obviously, here too there are couples in crisis, but divorce is a fairly rare event and the traditional model of the family resists.

Are there vocations in Jordan?
The only seminar for diocesan priests is the one in Beit Jala, in Palestine, of which I have been rector for twelve years. Out of the 32 seminarians attending it, 80% come from Jordan. This is because three-quarters of the faithful of the Latin Patriarch live in Jordan and this is where we have the liveliest and largest parishes. There are, however, fewer female vocations.

What is life in the parishes like?
Very lively, with groups and movements, no fewer than 25. for which we have set up a board of laypeople. There are members of the Neocatechumenal Way and of the  Focolari, Communion and Liberation… We have scouts, about 3,000 youngsters; Catholic Action: 4,000 youngsters.  Caritas: 220 employees and 1,300 volunteers from the north to the south of the country. In the Syrian crisis, the Caritas has done so much and done it so well that the Minister of Social Affairs has expressed the desire to award it a decoration. The Caritas centres distribute clothing, blankets, heaters… they are highly respected, work professionally and with Christian attention, Most of the Syrian refugees are Muslims, but they say: here we feel respected, there is a chair for those waiting their turn, people smile at you… Amongst the other ecclesial groups I do not want to forget the Legio Mariae and the General Secretariat for young couples: more than 200, who meet in groups, every week, read the Gospel and share dinner. There is also a General Secretariat for the altar boys, who are in their hundreds.

How has the Syrian crisis influenced the Christians of Jordan?
The same way as the rest of Jordanians; Jordan is a poor country, it does not have infrastructures, we are the fourth poorest country in the world in terms of water resources. Just giving water to drink to a million extra people, the number of Syrians here, is a great problem. The ones that have come here are the neediest Syrians, from the south of Syria. They are willing to work for a lower wage than normal and illegally; this way many Jordanians are being dismissed in favour of Syrian workers. This creates social tensions. The Jordanians say: they are stealing our jobs. The Church is doing everything to help: we have 24 diocesan schools, the schools in the North open in the afternoon for the Syrian children, mostly Muslims, so that they will not lose the school year…

Christians emigrate to the West from Lebanon and Palestine because of the war. Will the same happen here?
There is the temptation, some decide to leave, but it is not a phenomenon or haemorrhage as elsewhere. The fact is that Jordan is a stable and safe country. The police are strong, as is the army and so the country is peaceful.

In the Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis invites Christians not only to open their doors but to go out to announce the Gospel. Is this type of evangelizations possible in Jordan?
No. In Jordan we have freedom of worship, but not real religious freedom. There are very few conversions, I myself only know of two or three. They are done secretly. It is hard to keep the secret if someone converts. Faith here is a social rather than personal phenomenon. So if you change your faith, you also change family, society, people of reference... We do not baptize those who want to convert, we send them to Lebanon or to Europe. In Jordan, however, dialogue with Islam is possible, which we do in three ways: dialogue of life, intellectual dialogue and spiritual dialogue. The dialogue of life takes place, for example, in the Catholic schools, where half of the pupils are Muslims: the youngsters grow up together, know one another, respect one another and become friends. Then there is the intellectual dialogue, that of the conferences and scholars: it is an important dialogue because it lets you exchange ideas, although generally it goes not further than mutual compliments… Sometimes, however, these lectures are a good because you can say how things are going. The other day, for example, I took part in a conference in Rome where a Muslim said, “Islam is very open, we respect the Christians, we can even marry Christian girls…” “Wait a moment!” I answered. “It’s true that you, a Muslim, can marry my daughter, a Christian, but  in Islam your daughter, a Muslim, cannot marry my son who is a Christian. For there to be justice, both things have to be possible.” I was able to say that to him because the context of the conference guaranteed me a certain freedom, Lastly, there is spiritual dialogue, which is the finest, because you speak about your experience with God, a dialogue of prayer and spirituality. Here in Jordan I know some Muslim sheikhs who, I could say, only need baptism...”

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