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Peace on Earth . . . Copts in Jordan celebrate Christmas despite attacks in Egypt

Egyptian riot police stand guard near church in Alexandria Egypt during Christmas Eve Services

My phone rang this morning at 12:40 AM.  It was my Egyptian friend Joe.  He and his family were across town at the Coptic Orthodox church attending the annual Christmas Eve prayer vigil.  (Many branches of Orthodox Christianity celebrate Christmas according to the old Julian calendar on January 7th.)  I could hear the sound of many people in the background, the voices sounded festive and happy.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Only a week ago over 20 Coptic Christians were killed and over 70 wounded in an attack on a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve by Muslim extremists.

Joe was just calling for a ride home for himself, his wife, and three kids.  Taxis are hard to come by late at night here in Amman, and with 100s of other worshipers looking for a ride home it was impossible to find a ride.   I was glad he wasn’t calling with other news.

Orthodox priests in traditional garb

The street corner was crowded with people streaming out of the church; conversing, laughing, and waiting for rides.  The Coptic priest (obvious in his traditional black robes and long beard) was blessing children.  A typical Coptic Christmas if it hadn’t been for the two police officers not far from the priest’s elbow and the cars with flashing lights posted on the street nearby keeping an eye on the proceedings.

Joe and I exchanged the traditional Arabic Christmas greeting “Every year goodness to you.”  “And Goodness to you.”  (Interestingly, this is also a standard Muslim greeting during their holidays.)  The family was happy and dressed in their Christmas best.  4-year old Tony was  dashing in a full suit and bright red tie.  They said that it was the first year that the church had been completely packed.  Every seat, both downstairs and upstairs was taken and there was no room even to stand.   I congratulated them, but expressed my surprise given the recent attacks in Egypt.

Baba Shenouda, leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, presides over Christmas Eve vigil in Egypt

Joe replied that first of all, those types of attacks could never happen in Jordan because the government here takes a strong position against extremism and terrorism.  Joe thanked God for the safety his family felt as Christian minorities in this Islamic nation and for the police who were stationed near the church during their Christmas Eve vigil.  Secondly, and more important, Joe said that when people face troubles they turn to God and that is why the church was packed out for the 4+ hour prayer vigil marking the eve of Jesus’ birth.

Persecution of Coptic Christians is not a new thing and the New Year’s Eve attack is just the latest in a long line.  One year ago on Christmas Eve 2010 a gunman shot 7 worshipers (and 1 Muslim security guard) dead at a Christmas eve vigil in Egypt.  In 2009 attacks on both Christmas and Easter Eve services left Copts dead there as well.  And the violence is not just restricted to holidays.  This past April an estimated 3,000 Muslim attacked Christians in Marsa Matrouh in northern Egypt causing hundreds of Copts to seek haven in a church.  Over 50 homes, shops, and cars were destroyed in that incident.  The list could go on and on.

Muslims (on right) stand in solidarity with Christian worshippers in Egypt on Christmas Eve

However, it must be noted that this violence against Christians is not condoned by all.  A group of Muslims gathered near Coptic churches in Egypt last night in a show of solidarity with their Christian neighbors.  The Egyptian government posted riot police and bomb squads near churches and the sons of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak attended Christmas vigils.  Extremists have taken responsibility in the latest attacks and are calling for more.  Thankfully nothing happened last night in Egypt or here in Jordan.  But what will happen when the media attention fades and the security details go back to normal duty?  It seems just a matter of time before another attack shakes the Coptic community in Egypt.

I hope Joe’s confidence in his family’s safety and security here in Jordan holds true.  People of peace from all faiths and walks of life must take a serious stand against religious violence and the murder of innocents.

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Grateful Generosity: Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Remix

Note this post is my outsider’s reflection on observing the sacrifice of the the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival this year in Amman Jordan.  For my outsider’s summary on the broader details of Eid al-Adha, check out last year’s post here.  I’m not sure why but as of Nov 2009 it’s the most viewed page on the site (2600+ views).

Turkey, Stuffing, and Mashed Potatoes, yes - even here in Jordan

This year (2009) brought an interesting convergence of cultures and holidays as the American Thanksgiving celebration coincided with the beginning of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Fesitval of the Sacrifice).  In American culture the last Thursday of November is always Thanksgiving Day and people typically spend it with family and friends.  It is usually a day of feasting featuring a huge meal with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.  Some also take the time to serve the less fortunate.  Churches and other organizations often put on Thanksgiving dinners or deliver Thanksgiving meals to those who can’t afford to celebrate on their own.  Here in Amman we were able to celebrate with a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, and Jordanians.

Haggling over the price of a sheep of Eid al-Adha in Amman, Jordan 2009

By way of contrast Eid al-Adha falls on a different day each year as Muslims follow a lunar calendar.  This year the Thursday of Thanksgiving corresponded with the preparation day before the actual beginning of the festival.  The 5-day government holiday begins on preparation  day.  The streets were crowded yesterday with people making their last minute purchases for the holiday.  I was caught in a couple of traffic jams.  The interesting contrast with Thanksgiving is that many Muslims fast on preparation day.  Feasting and Fasting.  Traditionally in America early Thanksgiving Days were accompanied by a day (or even days) of fasting as people expressed their gratitude to God for his blessings.  But it seems we Americans have lost that tradition over the years, preferring the feast to the fast

Best Buy got flak for wishing people a "Happy Eid al-Adha" in this Black Friday flyer.

Today (Friday), was the actual beginning of the Eid.  I awoke this morning at 5 AM with the extended call to prayer that is typical on the mornings of the Greater Eids.  Of course waking up early on the day after Thanksgiving is not unusual in the States, as many rise at the crack of dawn to line up at stores in anticipation of getting some of the best shopping deals of the year.  Black Friday has almost become a religious experience for some.  Actually, electronics retailer Best Buy got in trouble with some this year for mixing too much religion with Black Friday.  They printed an ad that advertised their Black Friday deals and wished Muslims a Happy Eid al-Adha.  From my perspective this seems like a culturally savvy move recognizing that the Eid actually fell on Black Friday.  Apparently 10 pages of complaints were lodged on the Best Buy website – how petty, culturally arrogant, and just plain backwards.  Have people forgotten that with freedom of religion comes recognition of other religions in the society as a whole.  Those who were offended shouldn’t worry –  it’ll take aproximately 33 years for Eid al-Adha to fall exactly on Black Friday again.

In Amman Jordan today, early risers weren’t off to the mall or the department stores to find the best bargain.  (Although curiously I found that at 6 AM plenty barbers and bakeries were open).  Rather, many people were up early to pray at the mosques.  The call to prayer sounded for a good couple of hours this morning and people went early to begin the festival with prayer and a sermon.

Displaying Jordanian pride at the sheep/goat pens

After some time at the mosque many go to one of areas in the city reserved for the selling and sacrifice of animals for the festival.  For many days now people have been buying animals for this purpose.  Many purchase a lamb or goat (around 150-200 dinars), but some purchase cows or even camels (5000 dinar).  As an outsider it’s somewhat surprising and amusing to see ordinary looking people struggling to put a live sheep or goat in the trunk of their ordinary looking car.  I even saw one family putting theirs into the trunk of a taxi.  This made me laugh out loud, but perhaps it was the taxi driver and his family.  Those who buy and take their sheep may be planning to do the sacrifice at their home, or have another butcher do the deed

Jordanians gather for the sacrifice after attending morning prayers at the mosque

However, many show up at the sheep pens early on Friday morning to have their animal sacrificed, skinned, and butchered while they wait.  And, it’s a real family outing.  I saw men, women, and tons of kids all watching this fascinating ritual take place.  No one seemed to bat an eye at the animals being sacrificed right in front of them – the women, the little kids, even the girls in pink coats and cute winter hats took it all in stride.  I was really struck by the family nature of the event.  I kinda figured I would just see a bunch of men at the place of sacrifice but that was definitely not the case.

The whole experience was fascinating and if you are ever in a Muslim country during Eid al-Adha you should find out where the sacrifices will be taking place and go check it out.  However, be warned: it’s not for those with a weak stomach, don’t like the sight of blood, or have trouble seeing animals killed.  I didn’t understand everything that was going on this morning, but heres a thumbnail sketch.

The first thing that struck me this morning was the smell.  My son and I had stopped by to take a look at the animal pens earlier in the week and in his own charming way he had summed up the smell at that time, “Ewwww, it smells like sheep poop.  Or maybe camel poop!”  Anyone who has grown up near a farm knows the smell.  This morning was different.  It was distinctly the smell of freshly butchered lamb.  The air was permeated with it.  You might not recognize the smell if you live back in the States, but after a year of walking past sides of lamb hanging in the open air in the market you begin to identify the odor.

Basically the area was divided up into a bunch of different pens for the different sellers.  People would come and buy an animal, or often bring a slip showing that they had previously bought an animal.  Some of the animals had numbers spray painted on them – I imagine this is something like a customer number, but I could be wrong.  Most of the pens had their own sacrifice/butchering area as well.  The animals would be led to the place of sacrifice – sometimes led backwards by one leg.  I guess this is to help shield them from what is about to happen.  Then the animal is sacrificed by one stroke of a sharp knife across its neck.  This is done over a sort of makeshift trough or drain that runs to a large metal barrel or tank that has been sunken below ground for the purpose of collecting blood.  The dead sheep are lined up in a row on the ground so the blood will drain out.  On the other end of this line there is a man who skins and disembowels the sheep.  The carcass is then hung on a meat hook.  A butcher chops it into sections on the hook and then takes it to a nearby block for further breaking down.  One butcher I saw was using a  large tree stump as his block.  The pieces of meat are then given to the customer who is usually holding some sort of heavy duty plastic bag waiting to receive the fresh meat.

It was chilly this morning and the sides of lamb steamed as they hung in the cool air.  I overheard one guy commenting positively on how the air was like a refrigerator.  I couldn’t imagine the whole process taking place in the hot summer months!

Each family then takes the meat and distributes it according to Islamic tradition.  The combination I’ve heard most often is some for the immediate family, some for the poor, and some for the extended family.  Over the next few days there will be big family get-togethers and feasts not unlike Thanksgiving.  (Ok, the menu is dramatically different.)  The most important part, however, is giving to the poor.  Like folks back home who help the poor on Thanksgiving, acting on behalf of the less fortunate is a major part of observing Eid al-Adha.  Even if a family isn’t going to have an animal sacrificed they can donate  money so food will be given to the poor.

The differences and similarities between the two celebrations have been swirling around in my mind this morning.  Setting aside a day to be thankful, or be obedient to God, or to help the poor are good things.  But there’s this tension for me because, really, we should be doing those things everyday.  Our gratitude to God shouldn’t just be relegated to one day out of many, nor should our obedience or generosity.  However,there’s something in human nature, that despite our best intentions we wander and stray from time to time.  Perhaps the level of gratitude or obedience or generosity that we observe and practice on special days like Thanksgiving or Eid al-Adha isn’t humanly sustainable every day of the year.  But in a way shouldn’t our lives over-pour in generosity due to the gratitude we have for the blessings that have come our way.  Shouldn’t these special holiday observances should be powerful reminders to bring our lifestyles more in line with the desires of God and live each day with grateful hearts, obedient wills, and generous spirits?

Ok, time to get off the soap box.  Wherever you are and whatever holiday you are observing I wish you the very best. Happy Thanksgiving!  Eid Mubarak!  Peace to all!

Note: Even though I left out the most graphic ones,some of the pictures below are a bit bloody – if the sight of animals being sacrificed or butchered bothers you – don’t look.  If you are interested remember that clicking on a thumbnail below will bring up a full-sized pic.



Pope Benedict visiting Jordan

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Amman, Jordan yesterday to start his first papal visit to the Middle East.  His tour includes 4-days here in Jordan and 4-days in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

There has been a bit of  buzz around here the past week or so.  The attitude is very positive.  Christians of all denominations seem to welcome the pope’s visit warmly and see it as a boon for Christianity in this Muslim nation (Christians only make up 3% of the 5.8 million people).  Muslim friends have also been positive (other than a few speculations about traffic problems), and remembered fondly the visit of John Paul II 9 years ago.

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday.  (BBC News Photo)

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday. (BBC News Photo)

I’m not sure who initiated this trip but papers here indicate that HM King Abdullah invited the Pope.  Jordan has long been a stronghold of peace and (comparative) religious tolerance in the region and it is not surprising that this is one of the first Middle Eastern countries for the Pope to visit.  I can think of three strategic purposes for the invitation from HM the king.

  1. A reflection of HM King Abdullah’s stance on Islam in the contemporary world and esp. it’s relationship to Christianity and Judaism.  In 2004 HM King Abdullah comissioned a number of Islamic Scholars to draft what would later become known as the “Amman Message.”  This appears to be a well thought out explanation of what some inthe West would decribe as “moderate” Islam.  A year later came the “Amman Interfaith Message” aimed at “establishing full acceptance and good will between [the three monotheistic religions].”
  2. To encourage the country’s (rumored to be) shrinking Christian population.  Although they only represent 3% of the population Christians are guaranteed 9% of parliamentary seats.  This rubs some the wrong way, but there is no doubt that Christians have (and continue) to play an important role in Jordanian society.  As in other parts of the Muslim world wealthier and more educated Christians are leaving for the West.  Perhaps this visit fromthe Pope will be beneficial in encouraging positive Muslim-Christian relations in the kingdom and remind those that are here of HM King Abdullah’s benevlonce towards them.
  3. Encouraging Christian pilgramage/tourism to Jordan.  There are many important Biblical sites in Jordan – the most significant of which is the Bethany Beyond the Jordan – speculated baptism site of Jesus.  There is excellent archaeological evidence for this being the place where John the Baptist was baptizing long ago.  25% of the countries tourists apparently pass through here, but Jordan would like to see more awareness of the rich Biblical history reflected in this and other sites (Mount Nebo, Pella, Madaba, Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, etc.) and increased tourist traffic at the Baptism site and throughout the Kingdom.
Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Of course, there have been a few detractors, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.  They called for another public apology from the Pope re. his infamous 2006 speech which included a quote from a Medieval scholar that did not reflect favorably on Islam or their prophet, Muhammad.  The Vatican’s official stance was that the pope has already publicly stated long ago that he was sorry for the use of the quote an that it did not reflect his personal views on Islam.  While divisive at the time the speech and it’s aftermath led directly to the formation of the “Common Word between Us and You” initiative, which was an attempt by Christian leaders to reach out to Muslim leaders and bridge the gap of differences by focusing on some of the commonalities between the religions (namely loving God and loving neighbor).  Despite disappointment on the part of some about the lack of a new apology,BBC reports that:

…the top religious adviser to Jordan’s king thanked the Pope on Saturday for expressing regret for the speech.”I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims,” Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed told the Pope.”We realise that the visit [to Jordan] comes as a goodwill gesture and a sign of mutual respect between Muslims and Christians.

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

I am intrigued about the ongoing reaction to the Pope’s visit.  He has already made the rounds of some important sites – Mt. Nebo (where Moses died), Madaba (a largely Christian (Catholic/Orthodox) town near Amman,  and Jordan’s largest mosque where he made a speech encouraging peace, cooperation, and dialogue between Islam and Christianity and eschewed religiously motivated violence on both sides.  As I noted reception here has been largely positive among Muslims and local Christians.

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

In the negative reaction category, there are of course a few Muslim who have spoke out as I mentioned before.  But suprising to me was the ambivalence about the Pope’s visit on the part of Wetern  (ex-pat) Christians.  Most of the ex-pats I know who are Christians are some flavor of Protestant.  Many of their reactions could be summed up by saying, “Oh?  The Pope?  Ok, that’s nice.”  I’m not sure what fuels this.  I mean, ok, I’m not Catholic but I think the Pope is a pretty important and influential world/religious leader.  His presence here in this predominately Muslim country is significant for the Christians here and perhaps has some implications for future Muslim-Christian dialogue and relationship.  Not to mention the Mid-East peace process as he visits both Israel and Palestine after his Jordan stop.  Ok, so he’s not the leader of my particular Christian tradition and he’s just a man like anyone else – but let’s have a little gravitas and sense of history people!

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

One last cool result of the Pope’s visit.  HM Queen Rania started a Tweet (Twitter feed for the uninitiated – or a kind of a one-line at a time electronic diary for the super-uninitiated) to give a running update on the pope’s visit. It’s a rare personal insight into the (semi)random thoughts of a world leader, “Special day here in Amman; not everyday pope drop s by 4 a visit ” or “Just listened to Pope’s speech. Our region so needs a message of Peace.”  She also mentions the movie she and the King were watching the night before the Pope arrived (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – apparently His Majesty muttered “chickflick” under his breath at the suggestion), her failed attempt to get her 4-year old to don a suit, and posts a pic of HM King Abdullah and one of their son’s rolling out for an afternoon motorcycle ride.  I hope she continues to Tweet after the Pope leaves.   HM Queen Rania is already famous for her YouTube videos and seems to be a royal figure very much in tune with how to communicate in this electronic era.

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

This and other of HM Queen Rania’s pics can be found here.

Well, I need to wrap this up soon.  Sorry for the typos and if there are any bad links.  Had to type this quickly as I need to go to bed soon.  Pope Benedict is giving an open mass at the largest sports stadium tomorrow.  I’m gonna go check it out.  The gates open at 4 AM and close at 8 AM.  Mass starts at 10 AM.  Should be a very, very intriguing morning.  Oh, btw for security reasons you can’t bring sharp objects, food, or a cell phone.  I’m joining a couple of friends and we’re going to try and get there by 6 AM.   It’s 11 PM – better go.  I’ll hopefully get another update posted late tomorrow.