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Exclusive Interview with head of Jordan Evangelical Council David Rihani

Evangelical Council Calls On Government for The Approval of Ecclesiastical Court

The Jordan Evangelical Council elected Reverend David Rihani as its president on 4 September 2021

Maghtas.com conducted the following interview with him:

?Q: What is the Evangelical council, what is its authority, and what is the legal status of your council

A: The Jordan Evangelical Council is a voluntary group of five recognized churches in Jordan. It was established in 2006 and it include : Baptist, Nazarene, Christian Missionary Alliance, Assemblies of God, and the Free Evangelical Church. In addition to their prayer services and the support they provide to their members and to the general population at large in Jordan, these churches offer a wide range of projects including education, healthcare, humanitarian support for refugees, services offering care for the elderly, the orphans, and those with special needs as well as providing services for prisoners.

?Q: You said it is a voluntary group and then you said it is recognized. Can you explain

A: Our churches have been around since the beginning of the last century and at different points, during that hundred-year period we have all been properly registered. Each individual registration was published in the official gazette. However, the council itself has not been registered. We are working on a unified plan for all evangelicals in Jordan which will include the setting up of an ecclesiastical court in order to serve our ten thousand plus members across 70 churches located throughout the Kingdom of Jordan.

Q: You claim to be registered but the head of the Church Council in Jordan says that you are not a recognized Church.

A: As I said earlier, our five churches are registered with the Ministry of Justice. We own property. We have bank accounts in our names and we regularly receive waivers on customs, as it is the right of all churches. The claims that the Bishop has made about our recognition are based on his interpretation of the following law. In 2014, The Jordanian Parliament passed a law called the ‘Law for Christian Denominations’.  It was in fact an amendment of a previous law that was referred to as the ‘Law for Non-Muslims’. This law was not fair to the evangelical churches. As part of this law, an annex of 11 church denominations was listed allowing those particular churches to establish an ecclesiastical court. Our churches were not listed in this particular annex. This has caused a serious problem for us as we now do not have an easy path to create an ecclesiastical court. It also must be noted that some of the churches that were listed in the annex have very few members and we have over ten thousand. We regard this as being completely unfair. Despite the fact that our five evangelical churches were not listed does not in any way mean that we are not recognized by the Jordanian government because we most certainly are. We are in great need of such a court to regulate our members’ personal and family status issues to settle matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. The same law, however, laid out how other churches can be added to this annex.

?Q: Then why don’t you request to be added to this list

A: We have asked repeatedly. Our five evangelical churches have been working together in unity through our council for many years requesting (according to the law) one single court that will serve all of us, and our requests are repeatedly rejected based on the claim that there is opposition from the churches that are on the list. To be more precise, it is the Orthodox Church who is opposed to us.

A royal decree by His Majesty is required in order for our churches to be added to the annex and to establish our Ecclesiastical Court.

?Q:  Does the Orthodox Church have sovereign powers higher than those of the government of Jordan

A: Of course not. This is a sovereign decision that is the sole right of His Majesty and his government. But, as we were told when we met His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi (Bin Mohammad) in 2019, he said that Jordan is very careful not to anger the Orthodox Church because they have a lot of property in Jerusalem’s Old City and the Hashemites have a historic role to keep inter-Christian relations in harmony. Also, the Hashemites are the custodian of the holy Christian and Muslim sites in Jerusalem. His Highness Prince Ghazi informed us of the wishes of His Majesty the King. He has requested that the five churches be unified as one and we have taken his advice seriously. We have created a unifying constitution for the Evangelical Jordanian Christian Denomination. This was agreed to by the heads of the five evangelical churches and notarized in front of a registered lawyer to ensure that it is in sync with the constitution and laws of Jordan. Copies of the new regulation were sent to the Royal Court.

?Q: What is your position regarding the Custodianship in Jerusalem

A: We strongly and publicly support custodianship in all our talks locally, regionally, and internationally. We support the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and we have made many public statements on this issue in forums and organizations that we are members of. We issued a number of strong protest statements regarding the policies of the previous US president and we called on Americans to seek and follow the advice from His Majesty about the issues concerning Jerusalem.

Q: Former President Trump and the Republicans, in general, are supported by American Evangelicals. Therefore, it is logical that many believe that you evangelicals agree to their political positions

A: The word evangelical is very broad. It basically applies to Christians who abide by the literal words of the Bible and this applies to our churches, who are in fact extensions of western evangelical churches, mostly American. But, we differ in principle with what is called Christian Zionism. We declare this publicly in all forums. We announced it during the World Evangelical Alliance which is the best forum for evangelicals around the world. In Jordan, we are independent churches that do not depend on anyone outside in regards to our financial core expenses. Within our churches, there are para-church organizations that do receive international support for things like supporting refugees or orphans but our basic costs are all based on our self-sufficiency principle. Our relations with churches abroad is an asset to our country as we are acting ambassadors of Jordan and of the Arab and Palestinian causes with all who are unaware of the true facts.

?Q: Do you make such positions publicly in international forums

A: We are members of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), a body made up of over 600 million Christian evangelicals from around the world and I represent the Jordanian evangelicals in this Alliance. I am also a member of the WEA-MENA committee along with Dr. Jack Sara who is the president of the Bethlehem Bible College. We have had the strong intervention of the Palestinian issue and Arab causes in front of thousands of participants. We are also members of the Global Christian Forum which is an even wider Christian body that includes most Christians and we are working hard to set up a request to have this body hold its 2024 meeting in Amman-Jordan. We have spoken in many forums about Jordan’s role in promoting peace and of the leading role that Jordan has played in hosting refugees from neighboring countries in which I have personally participated in. We are also very active members of ‘The Evangelical Council in Jordan and Palestine’ and we have spoken in several international conferences which were held in the US, Korea, Albania, Columbia, and in Indonesia which was the most recent meeting just before the Covid crisis hit. I was honored to have been chosen by the World Evangelical Alliance to represent the Alliance in the UNCHR First Global Refugee Forum which was held at the UN headquarters in Switzerland during which we met with members of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry Mission at the grand meeting hall. The Jordanian diplomats were encouraged by our evangelical churches’ commitment to Jordan and of the support that we are providing to the refugee crisis. Through our strong voice and by the strength of our words we stressed Jordan’s vital role in its support of and commitment towards refugees despite the country’s limited resources. Also, we stated our rejection of Christian Zionism and our support for the Palestinian cause.

Q: Does all that mean you have no theological connection with churches that have the same name?

A: For sure we are close to those churches but our bylaws and our theology is independent. We are in constant debate with our brothers and sisters abroad and we generally discover that they are unaware of the facts and they repeat the same words as the Christian Zionists without a full understanding of what they are saying. We have succeeded on many occasions in changing their perceptions about the wrong interpretations of the Bible that aim to support injustice and occupation. But we have discovered over the years that many espouse ideas have been used for internal political purposes and interest but they have no effect outside the US.

?Q; Some of your opponents say you steal their members. Is that true

A: We believe that every individual on this planet is born with the ability to make free choices and is endowed with a free conscience and has the ability to freely choose their faith. Based on that we don’t loiter outside churches to steal its members and we do not make any effort to lure members to our churches because I believe a person who may join us today may be driven by his or her own personal interests they will then, in turn, leave us tomorrow when others lure them. Naturally, we don’t prevent any Christian from other denominations to join our church of their own free will. But our basic policy is not to seek anyone to join our churches but those who come voluntarily and those who accept our theology are certainly welcome to say.

Q: The government claims that you are decentralized and therefore you lack discipline?

A: This is partially true because we believe what the Bible says about the priesthood of all believers. We do provide a decentralized forum for our churches and our church leaders. But due to our needs in a country like Jordan which wants all churches to have an administrative hierarchy, our five churches have agreed since 2006, to an internal by law and we have regular elections for our executive board and our leadership. We have made many changes and the Evangelical Council has become a reference point for all of these evangelical churches.

Q: Is this why you wear a regular suit and don’t wear the religious robe or even the white collar that many pastors wear

A: While we respect all clergymen and their garb, we must keep in mind that the disciples of Jesus were ordinary men. They were fishermen and government officials. Saint Paul himself was a maker of tents. Our belief is that there are many gifts in the church but all are equal in holiness and service. I am an engineer and I work in business. My position as the president of the council is administrative even though I am ordained as a pastor I am not a full-time pastor at any specific church.

?Q: How do your church members deal with the Ecclesiastical courts then

A: This is an important question. The personal status issues in Jordan are regulated through religious courts and as a result, this has caused a lot of pain to our church members. Because, despite the fact that the Jordanian government accepts our marriage licenses, we are unable to provide any other legal remedy to our members such as adoption, divorce, inheritance, and other personal issues. As a result, our members usually have gone to the courts of the Anglican church but even that has not solved the problem and we have continuously called for the right to set up our own ecclesiastical court that can reflect our religious doctrines but our requests have not been responded to in a positive way. Recently we have been discussing the idea of cooperating with the Lutheran church which is theologically the closest to our churches and is one of the 11 churches that are listed in the 2014 annex to the Law of The Christian Denominations. They do not have a court and we have met a number of times with Bishops Sani Azzar and we hosted him at our council. Also, we participated in the installation of Pastor Imad Haddad recently. We are both awaiting an answer from the Jordanian government.

?Q: You had conflicts with the Orthodox Bishop on this issue

A: True. A couple who were married in one of our evangelical churches had problems and they faced the refusal of the civil courts to accept their request for an amicable divorce as they both had agreed to. The court instead considered that the marriage conducted at one of our churches is null and void and as a result, they nullified the marriage rather than grant them a divorce. We protested because our marriage licenses have been recognized for decades by the appropriate government agency and we were even more surprised to read a directive by the head of the judiciary that ordered all civilian courts not to recognize our wedding certificates. We felt that this was an unconstitutional act and we succeeded in reversing it. Naturally, some were angry about our campaign but the goal was not to defame anyone but to defend our rights and the need to respect the constitution and the law. Thank God it passed. Since then our churches have issued dozens of marriage certificates and they have been officially registered without a hitch.

?Q: Do you agree with the call by some that churches need to publicize its annual budget and spending reports

A: Yes, for sure. There is no reason why such information should be kept secret. The smallest organization in Jordan is asked by the government to have transparent and audited records, certainly, churches that are entrusted with the money of believers and contributors must be transparently published. This is a basic good-governance issue and all our churches and related organizations must be ready for such accountability. As the head of the Assemblies of God Church in Jordan, I have worked hard to register all church property as an endowment (waqf) and I call on all evangelical church leaders to do the same and to avoid registering church properties in private names or have church accounts in their own names. Such accounts must be transparent and public. I also call on all of our church leaders to ensure that pastors have health insurance and social security plans that ensure retirement pay. As the president of the Jordan Evangelical Council, I will coordinate with members of the council’s board to publish our annual budget on our electronic website as an initiative in this direction.

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