AMMAN, Jordan — As sectarian strife engulfs neighboring Mideast countries, Jordan’s King Abdullah II invited Catholic and other leaders to celebrate Christmas in the spirit of fraternity and harmony the holiday symbolizes.
When the moderate Muslim leader ascended the throne in 1999, he declared Christmas a holiday to be celebrated by Jordanian Christians and Muslims alike.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas joined the Dec. 18 gathering in downtown Amman, together with Catholic and other Christian clergy and laypeople as well as Muslims from across Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
Lively carols, performed by the Jordanian Catholic Fountain of Love choir, and sacred holiday songs, including “Ave Maria,” performed by other Arab artists, captivated the participants.
“We are very happy with this meeting and with His Majesty the king who says: ‘Merry Christmas’ to the Christian community,” Father Rifat Bader told Catholic News Service. “Christmas is for everybody.”
“And from Jordan it’s a message for the whole world: Jordan is always moderate in its religious points of view, and we have a very high level of interreligious dialogue. It’s a message against fanaticism, terrorism, and anyone who sees ‘the other’ as his enemy,” said Bader, who directs the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in the Jordanian capital.
“Despite all the hard times the region and the world are enduring, we are determined not to renounce the joy of these days,” Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate, told the assembly.
“In Jordan, we all enjoy several blessings,” he said, remarking on religious coexistence and dialogue. “We are one family.”
The archbishop drew attention to the “religious moderation, inclusion and respect,” King Abdullah has fostered through the Amman Message, which seeks to clarify the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam.
“This country, even if it is small in size, it is a cornerstone for stability in all the region,” Pizzaballa said.
But the Jerusalem Latin archbishop and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem expressed concerns that Christians in Jerusalem face regarding Israeli policies on the future of church properties and school curriculums as well as vandalism carried out by Jewish extremists against churches.
Speaking at the gathering, Sheikh Abdul Azim Salhab, who heads Jerusalem’s Muslim Religious Endowment Council, urged King Abdullah to lead international efforts to safeguard the holy city’s Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques. He referred to Jordan as “the sturdy line of defense for Jerusalem and its holy sites,” including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Under its 1994 peace treaty with Israel, Jordan is recognized as the custodian of Jerusalem’s Christian and Muslim holy places.
The Jordanian monarch’s efforts to promote a peaceful Islam and bring an end to religious violence in the Middle East were recognized in June when he was chosen as the 2018 Templeton Prize laureate.
The Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation said Abdullah had “done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.”
The king donated some of the prize money to refurbishing Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
“This spirit of interreligious harmony is important today, where there is a confrontation of cultures and religions in the world,” Bishop William Shomali, Latin patriarchal vicar for Jordan, told CNS.
“At least Jordan, a small country in the middle of a big conflict in the Middle East, is giving a positive example of coexistence and mutual respect between different religions, like a beautiful mosaic,” he added.
“This gathering reflects the fraternity that we have here. We have a legacy of 1,400 years between Muslims and Christians,” Melkite Father Nabil Haddad told CNS.
“The followers of Christianity and Islam in Jordan have both learned how to maintain this holy, sacred fraternity. We take it very seriously and cherish it, also for the sake of Jerusalem’s holy places,” said the priest, who heads the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center.
“Maintaining harmony can’t be taken for granted,” he added.