AMMAN - Jordanian Christians are up in arms over the activities of foreign missionaries in the Muslim conservative kingdom which is rich in biblical sites, including the spot where Jesus was baptised.Translating this into English, this means that Christians in Jordan - the same types of Latin and Greek Orthodox Christians who are often quoted in Gaza and the West Bank as feeling secure and happy even as their co-religionists abandon their homes in droves because of Islamist pressure - happily embrace their dhimmi, second-class status. The very idea that they might believe that their religion is superior to Islam has been stricken from their thoughts.
The row erupted after the government announced last month that it had deported an unspecified number of expatriates for carrying out Christian missionary activities under the guise of charity work.
The move was welcomed by several Christian figures, with many voicing concern that foreign missionaries were seeking to upset the traditionally stable ties between Muslims and Christians in Jordan.
"Missionary groups have hidden agendas and are close to Christian Zionists," asserted former MP Odeh Kawwas, a Greek Orthodox.
Fellow Christian Fahd Kheitan, an outspoken columnist at Al-Arab Al-Yawm newspaper, said the majority of Christians are "very suspicious and worried".
"The (missionaries) target the strong beliefs of traditional churches in Jordan and try to create religious links with the Zionist movement, which is extremely dangerous," said Kheitan.
Some Christian supporters of Israel, notably a segment in the United States, believe the return of Jews to the Holy Land and the 1948 creation of the Jewish state are in line with biblical prophecy.
In February, acting Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told parliament that "some foreign groups have come to Jordan under the cover of doing charity, but they broke the law and did missionary activities". He did not give figures.
Converting from Islam to Christianity is strictly prohibited in Jordan and foreign missionary groups are banned from seeking converts, although they can run schools, charitable organisations, hospitals and orphanages.
"For years we have been urging the government to close such Christian shops that have nothing to do with Christianity and tolerance," said Kawwas, referring to missionaries who convert Muslims in violation of the law.
"It is an old problem. They create sensitivities and provoke discord among Jordanian Christians, not to mention their threat to Muslim-Christian coexistence," the former lawmaker said.
"These groups don't belong to any church, but they try to hunt followers of other churches and trick some of our Muslim brothers to convert them," he added.
Christians represent around four percent of Jordan's population of nearly six million, including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian and Latin rites.
They are well integrated in the kingdom, where one Christian holds a ministerial post while eight percent control seats in the 110-member lower house of parliament.
In January, the first spark of controversy was lit by a Christian news agency, Compass Direct News, in a report accusing Jordan of cracking down on expatriate Christians by deporting them or denying them residency permit.
Parliament said the report was aimed at "damaging Muslim-Christian relations in Jordan". It also insisted that Jordan's Christians "are an integral part of society, living in peace and harmony with their Muslim brothers".
The church also voiced its concern.
Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem and Jordan said recently that some foreign missionaries "have undeclared political positions and we do not want the image of Christianity to be distorted."
As the article makes clear, Jordan systematically discriminates against its Christian population, as Muslims are free to proselytize but Christians are not.
A better idea of how Christians in Jordan fare come from this article:
WE MEET ONE MORE Christian on our pilgrimage--a Catholic shopkeeper in Madaba, a historically Christian town in which Christians are still a significant minority (30 percent). ...
I ask him if Christianity will still exist in Jordan in 50 years. He pauses, frowns and begins shaking his head. "My [Muslim] neighbor has two wives and 10 children. My children and nieces and nephews are gone." He lets us do the math.
We ask whether evangelicals would be welcome in Madaba. He frowns again. "They seem strange to us," he says--clearly he has more in common culturally with his Muslim neighbors, though more in common socioeconomically with Westerners. It is a complex identity. "It is very hard for Christians here." Then, as if just realizing he is talking with reporters, he insists: "But don't write that. Write that the government is very good for Christians here. That's important to say."