A Catholic family from Jordan was one of six households to address Pope Francis at September’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. As an American Catholic who has lived among Christians in the Jordanian capital of Amman, I was eager for their presentation, hoping it might challenge the belief taking root among American Catholics and others that the Middle East is universally a place of Muslim intolerance toward Christianity. I thought that Francis and those in attendance might hear, in spite of the very real dangers currently faced by many Christians in the region, of the generally tolerant environment of Jordan, characterized by peaceful co-existence. Unfortunately, the statement—delivered by a man named Nidal Mussa Sweidan, who was accompanied by his wife and two daughters—played into the notion that Christians are invariably subject to persecution.
The horrors suffered by Christians in certain parts of the Middle East cannot be overlooked. Islamic State fighters have captured hundreds of Christians in Syria in a brutal campaign that includes execution (including crucifixions), torture, rape, and enslavement of female captives. Up to a million other Christians are said to have fled their country. Affiliates in Libya notoriously executed dozens of Christians earlier this year, murders that were recorded and then seen around the world. In Iraq, tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced from the northern city of Mosul since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In 2013, dozens of churches in Egypt were destroyed in arson attacks.
Sweidan never explicitly said the words “Muslim” or “Islam,” but he didn’t have to. In speaking almost exclusively of “religious persecution” and a “hostile environment,” and in praising the Christian community as the singular source of light and goodness in the region, he appealed to negative assumptions about Muslims and cast Islam as the enemy. This was a lost opportunity. Sweidan could have offered a more hopeful message by noting that the historic coexistence of Islam and Christianity is, despite challenges, still evident in Jordan.