Practicing Vicariously was excited to have the opportunity recently to sit down for an interview with Father Nabil Haddad, a priest in the Melkite Catholic Church and founder and executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC) – an NGO based in Amman, Jordan. Haddad is well-known both in Jordan and internationally for the pioneering work he has done in interfaith relations, primarily between Muslim and Christian groups in the Middle East.
Read more below for his thoughts on JICRC, on religion as a tool for human rights, and on the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Practicing Vicariously: First, would you talk a bit about JICRC for our readers?
Fr. Nabil: The idea was birthed a long time ago. We were thinking of institutionalizing what we call the “model of coexistence in Jordan.” That’s one thing. The other thing – as an Arab Christian – I always thought that we have a responsibility as witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ. We live in a predominantly Muslim society; we always need to reflect on “what Christianity is for me” and, at the same time, present Christianity properly to the Muslim community. One good thing about being an Arab is that you understand the mentality and you understand Islam because Islam was revealed in Arabic. All of this helps Arab Christians to be an integral part within the community and within a Muslim society.
But it became very evident that it was necessary to start such an initiative after 9/11. I saw that Islam was being hijacked by its own people; we saw that there was a problem in reaching out to the world. And, being an Arab Christian, the Arab-Islamic culture is my culture, so it was really important that we come up with something. It was a group of us – Muslim and Christian leaders – that came together and we thought that it was about time. JICRC was birthed in the shape of a non-governmental organization – non-ecclesiastical, non-sharia – and non-governmental, but definitely it is based on the common values that we have. I have always thought that, for Arab Christians, it is very important – and it makes me very comfortable – to see the good Muslim practicing his Islam which teaches him to respect the People of the Book. So, out of what I call religious selfishness, I want to promote what I call the model approach of the religiosity of Islam. At the end of the day this represents an ideal relationship between Muslims and Christians.
We came together, we launched this NGO, and it was decided then that the best place to do it was in the premises of this church […] which is in the vicinity of the 6th century cathedral across the street, in the old city of Philadelphia. And here we are. Many people, when they come here […] they are surprised that they are in this beautiful setting in the old city of Amman. The place reflects the tolerance and the mutual respect between Muslims and Christians. I see Muslims working in the premises and the offices here. They are very comfortable to do this and, at the same time, it shows others that this is really a good model. So this was the inception of JICRC.
PV– Could you talk about your own childhood and your upbringing – as a Catholic, as an Arab Christian?
Fr. Nabil: I was born to a very devout Christian family, thanks to my mother, and, since I can remember, I was always fascinated by priesthood and I had always wanted to become a priest since I was maybe in kindergarten. […] I always insisted to the priest that I wanted to be baptized [but], unfortunately, it was customary that baptisms were delayed because baptism was a big feast – a big event. So I think I was baptized when I was three-and-a-half or four years old. And since then, as I said, I was fascinated by the priesthood. Then I started to go to church and to be an altar boy which was very important for me – very important. And I can remember in the mornings I would be the first one to be in the church – before the priest, before everybody else. I would hurry and try to get to school, not to be late for school. Going to the early morning Mass was something I loved to do; it became a daily practice. But going from the church, after Mass, to school – the public school – to me did not carry any discrepancy. I did not see that I was moving from one environment to another. At least from inside, I never felt I was a different person. I was the same person in the church, the same person in the class.
I used to be in the front row in the classroom and, as it was customary, whenever we had an Islamic education class, [Christians] were always asked if we wanted to leave the classroom, to go outside, and to not attend the class. But I always opted to attend the Islamic religion class, and I never felt uneasy doing that. I remember the Sheikh, the Imam, who used to be our teacher, he would walk in and he would sit behind his desk, you know, facing the classroom and then he would start saying, “Okay, now who’s going to recite something from the Holy Qur’an?” and I would be the first one to raise my hand, and he would say, “Haddad.” And then Haddad would start to recite from the Holy Qur’an and always he was fascinated. And he would say, “Okay, let’s give him a hand,” and everybody would be clapping. […] And when another Hussein or Mustafa or Ali, or one of my classmates, when he would ask them to read and they would make mistakes, grammatical mistakes, or not follow the reading exercise of the Holy Qur’an, the chanting from the Holy Qur’an, he would punish them. So, that in a way was a reason to be asked by the students, “Why don’t you get out of the classroom?” Because they thought that I was creating sort of a criterion for them. And he would tell them, “How come a Christian is doing better in reading the Holy Qur’an or answering the questions that are raised by the Imam?”
So this was a little childhood background that I felt I had implanted deep in my heart — I could be the good Christian in the morning, in the church. I could be the same good Christian when I was with my Muslim colleagues. I always loved the Arabic language and my love of the Arabic language always helped me, apparently, to reach out to the mind and the heart of my teachers, especially when it came to Islam, to the Holy Qur’an. Maybe I had this reservoir of passion for what I do right now, or I could see the seeds of reaching out to the community. I always knew that [Christians] were very few in the classroom. Few – I don’t say minority – three, four, five max. And to me, I never felt prejudice. […] My love for the Arabic language also has given me more confidence when I discuss an Islamic topic and it became a part of me. […] I was always proud to be the Arab Christian who could reach the minds and the hearts of the Muslims. And this is what I do.
PV: Why do you feel that religion is an effective tool for human rights?
Fr. Nabil: In 2000, I received a phone call from the [Jordanian] Prime Minister who told me that I was selected by His Majesty to be a member of the Royal Commission for Human Rights. And I was so proud to be chosen for that. And I think that it opened my eyes to the issue of human rights. It opened my eyes on religion from a human rights point of view. And, digging into Christianity, I thought that the Bible and the teachings of Christianity gave more respect, more dignity to the human being – more by far than the International Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. And talking about the right for someone to be respected, Christianity made it more of a commandment, not only to respect, but also to love, and that means that you are given the Other – the Other who is your neighbor. In human rights it’s considered that there is a separation between you and this Other; he’s an alien. In Christianity, he is more related to you. So this has really opened my eyes and my heart to the teachings of Christianity – as it gives so much dignity to the human being. […] I don’t think a person driven by his conscious, by his goodwill, by his faith, could fail in maintaining this kind of respect for the Other; for the human being.
That’s why I thought that religion could be very influential on our attitude, on our conduct, on our relationship with each other. And at the same time, the teachings, the values, the ideals that are inherent within the religion could be a prime mover in maintaining that respect for the human being. I think that religious freedom is the crown of human rights. So when we talk about religious freedom, we are talking about such a crown in a list of freedoms and liberties. I think I could not talk about practicing my own freedom of religion, of faith, of conscious, if I were not driven by my religion that teaches me to respect the freedom of others in choosing their own faith.
Being a Christian – an Arab Christian – in the Middle East, I always saw how influential religion and Islam is on society. […] I think religion can always be that force, that driving force, which motivates people – that’s one thing. The other thing is that people will feel more comfortable with being driven by their own faith to practice a certain affective attitude, [rather] than being told, let’s say, by law or by force. It gives the human person, I think, that kind of self-respect that – based on his or her relationship with God – that will reflect on […] that other dimension of the relationships that the human being has with God, with the Other, and with her- or himself. So these are the three dimensions that are all connected and correlated. A person can be pro-human rights by default when he or she is a person – a man, a woman – of faith. I don’t think any faith would fail the faithful when it comes, especially, to human rights.
PV: What is your opinion on the conflict in Syria, on regional instability, and on the rise of extremism? What are your thoughts on how to start to address some of these issues?
Fr. Nabil: I think sometimes I feel very sad that this region – I hope I’m wrong – this region became so addicted to suffering, to pain, to violence. When you look around the region you see that there is so much difficulty. Look at the region since the ’70s; we saw an Islamic revolution in Iran. Then we started to see changes taking place here. We see that there is no peace. We see since 1948 the Palestinian problem, the Arab-Israeli conflict. We see dictatorships. We see that this region is targeted or is needed for the interests of the super-powers. Look at the Gulf States and the oil. When we look at the region now, I am really saddened. But that does not mean that we lose faith. I think there is hope as long as there is life. I think life and hope are two sides of one coin. As we live, we have to have that kind of hope when we look at what’s happening in Egypt, what’s happening in Iraq, and the saddening events that take place on the ground in Syria. I think the people are now fed up with what they see on TV – the killings, the beheadings of people. We see the atrocities.
Now, usually, at this time of the year, it was very customary for me to go to Syria. Drive, and in three hours I am in Damascus; drive another hour or so and I am in our Lady of Saidnaya. Now when I look at what’s happening in that country, I thank God that Jordan – although we have our economic difficulties and hardships – that we are still safe. And out of my love to my region, to the people, to men, women, kids, children, the elderly, I feel it is a shame that they do not enjoy the safety and the security that we have here. What I think is that Syria, everybody in Syria, all Syria, they became the victims of hatred. […] We understand that people have the right to seek and get democracy. But I think for democracy, I think the life of the people is more sacred than democracy. I think the safety of the children who are being traumatized…this breaks the hearts and leaves all of us in pain because – what did they do? What I see here is the responsibility of the international community; they are the ones who are to be held responsible to – if they cannot make peace – at least to stop the atrocities, to stop this violence.
We have been asking ourselves, “Is it only the Christians? Is it only the Christians who are paying the price?” Christians are paying a high price, but it is not only Christians who are paying the price. I feel it is not only our responsibility, but it is a sacred mission that we protect the lives of the people. Unfortunately, Syria turned into a courtyard for extremists. We see the division among the Syrians – the Sunnis, the Alawites, Christians, Nationalists, Islamists. Unfortunately, this mosaic is being used as a reason to build more and more hatred rather than building diversity and pluralism and that beautiful society which should be saved. I think, again and again, that super-powers, all sides, should work together on finding a solution. There is no way out but […] a merciful solution which takes into account the dignity and the sacredness of lives – the lives of children and women who are being, unfortunately, driven out from their own homes and now they are suffering. Everybody’s suffering in the region. We in Jordan are suffering from this hatred. We have a lack of resources as Jordanians. At the end of the day we thank God that we are still safe, but we are sad deep in our hearts. We are sad because we can see everyday more lives are being taken for nothing.
Every time I talk about the region, I think it is appropriate to thank Jordan for being a safe-haven always for all the people we aid. We have waves of refugees. We had the war in ’73, then we had the civil war in Lebanon; we hosted the Lebanese. After that we had the Iraqis. We had an influx of another wave…all the Jordanians who used to work in the Gulf, they came back, they were driven back to Jordan, [numbering] around 650,000. Then we had the Iraqis, more Iraqis. And now we have the Syrians. […] And I think all nations outside the region have the responsibility of […] showing support, but I think the best support we can give the people is not to give them water and tents – I think the best support we can give is to enable them to go back to their country and return safely.
PV: Thank you so much for your time!
Fr. Nabil: Thank you.