The Jordanian constitution generally guards against religiously-based discrimination and provides for the free exercise of religion. At the same time, it enshrines Islam as the state religion and assigns personal status matters for Muslims to courts governed by shari’a law and for adherents of other faiths to tribunals governed by those faiths’ respective religious codes drafted to address such issues by the other faiths’ leaders.
Specifically, Article 6 of the constitution states “[t]here shall be no discrimination between [Jordanians] as regards to their rights and duties on grounds of race, language or religion[,]” and Article 14 “safeguard[s] the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites in accordance with the customs observed in the Kingdom, unless such is inconsistent with public order or morality.”
But Article 105 accords Islamic courts jurisdiction over Muslims’ personal status issues, Islamic charitable endowments, and cases involving “blood money” between two Muslim parties or one Muslim and one non-Muslim party. Non-Muslims belonging to government-recognized religious communities are subject to official tribunals of their respective faiths for matters of personal status and charitable contributions, according to Articles 108 and 109.
Article 106 stipulates that Islamic courts exercise shari ‘a law, which is rooted in the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad; most interpretations of shari ‘a forbid conversion from Islam. This illustrates the primary constitutional tension between religious freedom – which encompasses the right to change religions – and the official stature of Islam in Jordan.
Adding to tension between religious freedom and shari’a law, Jordan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2006. The covenant in Article 18 declares that everyone shall have the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” including
freedom to have or adopt the religion of his or her choice. This conflicts with shari ‘a law’s denial of Muslims’ freedom to adopt a different religion or belief.
On a practical level religious freedom in Jordan is evident in many official practices but is occasionally undercut by actions of the judiciary, security apparatuses, and the government itself. Illustrating government efforts to accommodate religious diversity, 8% of the 110 seats in the Lower House of Parliament are reserved for Christians as are a small number of upper-level military positions. Jordan also hosted a visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 in which he conducted a mass and met with various political and religious figures, including Jordanian King Abdallah.
Conversely, churches must receive legal governmental recognition to own land and conduct rites such as marriages and divorces, and only eleven Christian churches hold such recognition. Unrecognized foreign based churches can seek approval to buy land for religious purposes through a Ministry of Justice application, but such approval does not grant such foreign based religion authorization to issue marriage contracts or to set up religious courts to address issues of divorce, custody and similar issues. These unrecognized faiths must rely instead on the courts of other Christian faiths. When a member of an unrecognized church living in Jordan seeks to address such legal matters, the civil courts of Jordan if presented with the matter will ask the church court that mostly closely aligns to the beliefs of the individuals involved to address the matter. In most instances such concerns arise regarding protestant church members and the Arabic Anglican Church is usually designated to address the matter. The government does not officially recognize marriages conducted by unrecognized churches, thus requiring members of such churches to join Islam or affiliate with or join a recognized Christian church in Jordan to legally marry. Choosing not to do so renders their marriages invalid, hindering the issuance of their children’s birth certificates, which in turn bars them from registering for school. A birth certificate always indicates the religion of the child either as Muslim or Christian in Jordan, depending solely on the faith of the father of the child. A Muslim man may marry a Christian woman, but the children are all deemed Muslim at birth. A Muslim woman may not marry a Christian man so all children of a Muslim woman are deemed Muslim as well.
Plain-clothed security officers reportedly monitored the outside of some Christian churches during services and summoned religious leaders for questioning on their church’s activities and membership. Additionally, a shari ‘a court found a Muslim convert to Christianity guilty of apostasy, annulled his marriage, and declared him devoid of religious identity; the man and his family fled Jordan for fear of losing their civil rights and custody of the children. The government also expelled thirty evangelical expatriates for violating unspecified laws. Evangelizing to Muslims is not tolerated. Security forces detained and questioned some of them without charge prior to their deportations.
Religious Policy Making
Religious policy in Jordan stems from the cultural heritage that Jordan, as well as other Middle Eastern states, inherited from the Ottoman Empire; following its birth as an independent nation in 1946, Jordan retained many Ottoman laws that had remained in effect throughout the British Mandate period from 1923 to 1946. Among them were civil laws originating in the
Ottoman civil code and founded upon Islamic legal principles which are considered the basis of private law.
Religious policy in Jordan is also highly influenced by politics. For instance, the Ministry of Awqaf [charitable contributions] and Islamic Affairs—which manages Islamic humanitarian progress, supervises mosques, and encourages welfare and morality—is influenced by the Jordanian political climate in which the largest political party is the Islamic Action Front, an opposition Islamic party with links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, one of the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political groups, established a branch in Jordan in 1946 with the blessing of Jordan’s first monarch, King Abdullah. Initially the Brotherhood in Jordan functioned apolitically, operating with a moderate agenda and focusing on religiously-oriented community service. Since 1946, the Brotherhood has arguably become Jordan’s most influential Islamic movement, commenting on most of the country’s religious issues. Despite operating in opposition to the government for the past decade, the Islamic Action Front maintains sway among Jordanian policymakers.
Another reason that politics affect religious policy in Jordan is because Islam intertwines religion and politics. Additionally, many Jordanian Muslims feel that they are a part of a global Islamic nation, creating an interstate bond among Muslims and making them concerned about events affecting Muslims in other countries. Jordanian policymakers in turn frequently adjust their stances on religious issues to be consistent with domestic and global Muslim sentiments.
For example, a special relationship exists between Jordan and Muslims in the Palestinian territories; approximately one-third of Jordan’s population is Palestinian. Consequently, events in Israel and the Palestinian Territories can affect religious speech in Jordan, as occurred during Israel’s 2009 incursion into the Gaza Strip. During the crisis, Jordanian imams weaved references to the conflict into their Friday sermons, sparking public protests.
In sum, religion inspires Jordanians to support or oppose issues. The country’s Muslim community looks not only to the government line on religious issues, but also to their religious heritage. If the community’s religious reference is to be government religious policy, religious policymakers must carry trust and credibility with Jordanian Muslims in terms of religious issues.
Christian policy making by the authorities is more based on maintaining peace and harmony with Muslims in Jordan. For example, unrecognized churches seeking recognition, seeking to purchase property as a foreign based religion for a worship facility, or seeking to assert their constitutionally protected rights to worship often face opposition in their efforts from the Jordan’s security apparatus. The King recently adopted a document outlining core principles of religious tolerance called the Amman Message. While this document speaks in terms of tolerance and living together as Christians and Muslims in Jordan, and treating all equally, often it is used by those in power to seek to maintain the status quo so as not to upset the existing Christian churches. Sometimes the balance is maintained by not allowing other faiths, including those know to evangelize or “new” churches to enter the country in any meaningful way, protecting the recognized Christian churches from threats to losing membership to other
Christian faiths. Intended or not, any statements of discontent from recognized churches leads to tremendous hesitancy from authorities to allow a formal presence or development of unrecognized churches so as not to upset the balance and harmony outlined in the Amman Message.
The King also sanctioned the development of the Non-Muslim Counsel of Churches several years ago, developed to help advise the King regarding Christian issues. While not officially a policy making body, the King and his advisors will often turn to this Counsel and its individual members for guidance in how to address Christian issues, including how to handle new requests for recognition. This Counsel in the past has been used to provide support among the Christian community in approaching various ministries when joint challenges have been faced. Due to infighting among the members of the Counsel, the authorization of the Counsel to speak for all Christians in Jordan has been substantially reduced.