Dr. Feras Haddad is a physician in the Jordanian military. He and his family were chosen to participate in a three-day pilgrimage tour with other Jordanian Christian military officials to Christian holy places in Palestine and Israel. So far, this newly implemented idea seems to be a one-time initiative by the Jordanian army.
“It is a great move and it was an amazing experience to see the Christian sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth,” Haddad told Al-Monitor.
Haddad, who visited Palestine before as part of military missions to Gaza and Ramallah, said the experience of visiting the religious sites was very special. “I have been to the Vatican, Brussels, Iraq’s Najav, but these visits dwarf in comparison with seeing the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem,” the doctor said.
The trip to Palestine coincided with the annual Muslim hajj, in which hundreds of Jordanian military personnel are chosen annually to partake in the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. “The importance of this move,” Haddad said of the Christian sites tour, was that it provides for “equal opportunity” to all members of the Jordanian army.
According to a report by the Amman-based Catholic website Aboun.org, the pilgrimage of the Christian Jordanian officers took place Aug. 13 and included 24 Jordanian military officers and their families. Maj. Areej Hadaddin, a female officer, told the website that the trip, paid for by the Jordanian army, reflects in full the path of the country’s leadership. “This is the kind of activity that helps create the community spirit within the army for people from different backgrounds.”
Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, head of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, was quoted in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour on Aug. 14 as praising this unique activity of the Jordanian army by saying, “This is an act written in golden letters. It is a historic new heroism that shows the love between Jordanians, whether Muslim or Christian and whether military or civilians. It also reflects their sincere interest and priority to Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause.”
Ghazi Musharbash, a former Jordanian parliamentarian for the Christian seat in the Jordanian capital, Amman, said he expects this kind of pilgrimage to be repeated annually.” Musharbash told Al-Monitor that such trips strengthen ties with Palestine and help bond Jordanians and Palestinians.
But Musharbash said that efforts to bring Christians and Muslims together must start on the east bank of the Jordan river. “What we need is to work much harder on the issue of intercommunal living at home in Jordan as well.”
Musharbash warned about attempts to politicize the visit — which required visas from the Israeli Embassy — that have called the tour "normalization." He said, “Visiting a prisoner is not equal to sympathizing with or legitimizing the jailer.”
Brig. Gen. Imad Mayyah, the head of the Jordanian Evangelical Synod, told Al-Monitor that such visits are extremely important for translating calls for pluralism and equality. “Such activities are a source of pride to all of us and I hope we can extend these kinds of activities in other fields and with other institutions as well.”
A variety of governmental and public organizations in Jordan annually provide financial support to their staff who go on the hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Hundreds representing the armed forces, the civil defense system and an accompanying medical staff set out Aug. 10 for the Saudi holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the annual Islamic hajj. In greeting the departing 45th consecutive Islamic pilgrimage visit, the assistant to the army’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ben Yassin, was quoted as saying that the “support by the army to this annual pilgrimage is a sign that the Hashemite leadership doesn’t waste any opportunity to do what is needed to preserve the Arab and Islamic character of the armed forces.”
For his part, Mayyah, a former parliamentarian for the Christian seat of the city of Madaba, told Al-Monitor that he hopes the idea of supporting the pilgrimage to Christian sites is not restricted to just Christian members of the military. “I would like to see members of all faiths in the Jordanian army also visiting Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem,” he said.
Hanna Kildani, who is now the Catholic church's vicar for Israel in Nazareth for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said in a 2015 lecture that Jordan’s Christians number 239,003, which amount to nearly 4% of the total Jordanian population of 6 million (excluding refugees and foreign laborers).
While the Christian community in Jordan is relatively small, its influence in business, education and politics is much bigger than its numbers.
The move of the Jordanian army to support the visit by Christian military officers to Palestine’s Christian sites is symbolic at best but is a reflection of the country’s leadership aim to set the tone in favor of a sense of pluralism and equality between the kingdom’s citizens and at the same time boost relations with Palestine and Palestinians.
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