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Christian ministries reeling in Jordan

Evangelical Christians are under fire in Jordan, and more than two dozen missionaries and seminary students have been deported or refused visas in the past year.

Some of the 27 families or individuals are American citizens, a source of some embarrassment to Jordan's King Abdullah II, who will be in Washington tomorrow to visit the White House and conduct interfaith discussions with Muslim and Jewish leaders.

Abdullah also appeared before a closed-door session of American evangelical leaders during the February 2006 National Prayer Breakfast. Jordan heavily markets to evangelicals its many biblical sites as part of its $2.3 billion tourism industry.

"I think the king needs to see the repercussions for allowing this thing to simmer underneath the surface," said Keith Roderick, Washington representative for Christian Solidarity International, which tracks religious persecution. "The king has to realize there is a cost to this reaction. Christians are an important part of the economic well-being of Jordan."

After the expulsions were reported Jan. 29 by the evangelical news service Compass Direct, Al Jazeera TV devoted a lengthy Feb. 17 program to the issue. Constantine Qarmash, an official with the Greek Orthodox Church in Amman, Jordan, told the network that the evangelicals' goal was to "serve Israeli interests in this region."

Awda Qawwas, a World Council of Churches representative in Amman, accused foreign evangelicals of being "financed by their churches in America."

"Most of them are of American nationality," he told Al Jazeera. "They come as individuals, and they exploit the citizens of this nation, recruiting them for their interests."

The Jordanian Embassy issued a statement saying a Council of Church Leaders in Amman has "been complaining for many years about the role of missionary groups in Jordan." Christian proselytizing of Muslims is illegal in Jordan.

In off-the-record interviews, several Christians have told The Washington Times that Jordanian government officials tend to listen only to clergy from the historic churches native to the region. Those churches actively work against evangelicals, seeing them as foreign interlopers who undermine the native churches by converting their members.

"It's not the Muslims who are causing me problems," one Christian leader said. "It's the Orthodox."

"It's the bishops," one ministry director said in a phone interview last week, referring to leaders of the Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and other native churches in Jordan. "There are four bishops that are causing us a lot of trouble."

Dwight Bashir, senior policy analyst for the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, said the rash of deportations are the highest he's seen in six years in what has been considered one of the more tolerant Middle Eastern countries.

"There's a troubling climate starting to brew there," he said.

A number of the deportation or refused-visa cases come from students attending Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS) in Amman, one of a handful of Protestant seminaries in the Middle East. Imad Shehadeh, its president, was en route to the United States on Friday and could not be reached for comment.

But in November he said the seminary had been "extremely hurt by Muslims," not only in denying visas to returning foreign students but in the jailing and deporting of students who had converted from Islam to Christianity.

Mr. Roderick, who visited Jordan in October with a group of American evangelicals, said 78 foreigners out of JETS' 300-member student body had been deported or had their visas refused. He added that the U.S. Embassy in Amman has an "institutional indifference" towards Christians in general.

William Murray, founder of the Religious Freedom Coalition and a member of the same delegation, said Abdullah is trying to satisfy Islamic radicals.

"The evangelicals are the easiest to push around, and they can be made an example of to satisfy the mainline Islamic elements there he's been unable to Westernize," he said.

Several documents related to this article can be found on Ms. Duin's BeliefBlog.

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