- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan, which finds itself short of tourism dollars because of fighting in nearby Israel, has come up with a unique solution for an Islamic country. It allows American evangelists to hold meetings in the country in venues paid for by the Jordanian government.
The Middle Eastern country is world-famous for its 150 biblical sites, its Nabatean fortress city of Petra in the countrys southern desert region, and the vast Roman ruins of Jerash just north of Amman, the capital. But it has experienced precipitous drops in visitors ever since fighting erupted across the Jordan River in Israel last September.
When tourists in massive numbers began canceling their trips, the Jordanian Tourism Board, an independent group that works with the Jordanian government, swung into action.
The largest bulk of North American tourists who visit the country come for religious reasons, a fact the Israeli government has long exploited through retaining evangelical American Christian celebrities such as Pat Boone to promote the Jewish state. Spending $5 million in North America — compared with $1.2 million spent by the Jordanians — the Israelis run multipage ads in Christian magazines extolling their country.
Thus, Jordanians began exploring Americas rich mother lode of Christian travelers as well. Early this year, it retained Dallas-based Christian publicist A. Larry Ross and Associates to boost its image among evangelicals. Mr. Ross, who has represented the Rev. Billy Graham, Dallas evangelist T.D. Jakes and many other religious personalities, has extensive contacts among the leaders of Americas 45 million evangelical Christians.
Mr. Ross had also previously arranged a meeting between Mr. Jakes and Akel Biltaji, a Jordanian Cabinet minister of tourism and antiquities who is fluent in English. While Mr. Jakes was in Israel several years ago, the two men visited Mount Nebo in Jordan, as well as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, a site east of the Dead Sea where Jordanians insist Jesus was baptized.
"Its been neat to watch a relationship be built between a minster like Jakes and Biltaji," Mr. Ross says. The tourism minister was then invited to speak at Mr. Jakes enormous Dallas church, the Potters House, when he was in town in February.
Another reason Mr. Biltaji was in Dallas was for a reception — sponsored by the Jordanians — at the National Religious Broadcasters convention. The NRB hosts a large annual gathering of evangelical radio and TV personalities.
In April, while on a visit to Washington to discuss trade issues with President Bush, Jordans King Abdullah met with 80 evangelical Christian leaders. According to a dispatch from Charisma News Service, King Abdullah invited the group to visit Jordans holy sites.
The meeting was hosted by an American televangelist, the Rev. Benny Hinn, a friend of the late King Hussein and King Abdullah. Mr. Hinn, 45, who was born in Jaffa, Israel, and speaks Arabic, is a flamboyant minister known for his healing crusades and has survived accusations of heresy, fancy living and an investigation by a syndicated TV newsmagazine.
Mr. Hinn told his guests that evangelicals had "put one arm around the Jews in Israel, and now it was time to put the other arm around the Arabs, since they are Gods children, too."
Guests at the gathering included big names in evangelism: South Korean mega-church pastor David Yonggi Cho; Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch; charismatic pastors Bill Joe Daugherty of Tulsa, Okla., John Hagee of San Antonio and Marilyn Hickey of Denver; and Don Argue, president of Northwest College, an Assemblies of God school in Kirkland, Wash.
Mr. Hinn has been to Jordan seven times. In fact, King Abdullah had seen the evangelists TV programs and showed them to King Hussein, who then arranged to meet with Mr. Hinn, ministry spokesman David Brokaw says.
Mr. Hinns Jordanian travels started in 1995, when he visited a church pastored by the Rev. Dikran Salbashian, pastor of Weibdeh Assembly of God Church in Amman. Eight-hundred people packed into the 330-seat church for the meeting, the pastor says.
"I believe Benny is the one who opened Jordan to the West," Mr. Salbashian says. "He is the first one who embraced loving the Arab and Jew at the same time."
Subsequent preaching missions by Mr. Hinn were in venues paid for by the Jordanian government, partly because Mr. Hinn brings hundreds of tourists in tow, Mr. Salbashian said.
Not all Christians in Jordan agree with Mr. Hinns theology, says Isam Ghattas, director of Manara Ministries, a Christian organization in Amman, but they all know about his friendship with King Abdullah.
"One good thing about Benny," Mr. Ghattas says, "he put Jordan on the Christian map. We ask Christians to not come here to visit dead stones," referring to the countrys 30,000 archeological sites, "but living stones," referring to Christian believers.
Other evangelists have followed suit. When San Diego evangelist Morris Cerullo held a three-day "school of ministry" preaching tour in September 2000, the government hosted him at the Royal Cultural Center, an Amman meeting hall. Mr. Cerullos visit included 300 American tourists and 800 from other countries, Mr. Salbashian said.
Two foreign charismatic evangelists — Ulf Eckman, of Uppsala, Sweden, and Mr. Cho of South Korea — have also done evangelistic meetings in Jordan. Mr. Eckman is a proponent of "prosperity theology," which says Christianity guarantees riches for the believer and that sick people will become well if they "confess" their healing and refuse to admit they are sick.
Mr. Cho pastors the worlds largest Protestant church, the pentecostal Yoido Full Gospel Church of 780,000 people in Seoul. His two-day crusade, which was held in mid-May, was co-sponsored by the countrys five Protestant denominations (Christian Missionary Alliance, Southern Baptist, Nazarene, Evangelical Free Church and Assemblies of God). About 6,000 people came each night to the Amman University Arena, which the churches paid for.
However, such evangelism comes with a catch. Mr. Hinn has also preached in Dubai, also a Muslim country, but his access was limited to expatriates and his speeches were not translated into Arabic. Islamic law — specifically in the Hadith, a collection of religious commentary — forbids Muslims to leave their religion. Those who do are called apostates and are killed. Women are jailed until they recant.
The law has been sufficiently prominent throughout Islamic history, but was moderated due to European colonialism, says the Rev. Ernest Hahn, a Lutheran pastor and Islamics expert in Toronto. Not all Muslim governments act on the law, he said, but if the converts family or an extremist group wishes to enforce the penalty, rarely is either party punished.
However, Jordanians stress they are comparatively liberal among Muslim countries and should be considered that way.
"Were victims of misperceptions," says Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Boards Washington office. "Its a free country in many ways."

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