In Jordanian city hit by ISIS, old lessons on Christian-Muslim coexistence
Muslim and Christian residents of Karak, Jordan, say putting community first, and respecting each other's religious sensitivities, are key to more than coexistence. They call it interdependence.
Karak, Jordan—When Islamic State jihadists seized the Crusader castle in the heart of this southern Jordanian city in December, Maher Habashneh had just one thing in mind.
Braving stray bullets from a firefight playing out in the city center between ISIS and an alliance of security forces and city residents, Mr. Habashneh rushed to the home of Waddah Amarien, where he stood guard until his childhood friend returned from Amman early the next morning.
Habashneh, an unemployed university graduate, is Muslim, Mr. Amarien is Christian. Habashneh insists it was not an act motivated by support for interfaith coexistence – it was merely second nature.
“The last thing I was going to do was let anyone intimidate my brother and his family,” says Habashneh, speaking recently at Amarien’s flower shop in downtown Karak.
“We will not let them divide us.”
At a time when polarizing politics and extremist groups are dividing Christians and Muslims who have lived together in the Middle East for centuries, residents of Karak, which has endured despite Crusades and occupations for more than a millennium, say they have their own unique model for interfaith interdependence that has withstood the test of time.
Residents say respect for each other’s religious sensitivities, putting the community first, and vigilance against attempts – from outside or within – to divide the community along sectarian lines, can all help interfaith communities withstand extremist forces threatening to pull them apart.
Time and again Karak’s residents have chosen to rally around their common culture, traditions, and language in the face of forces that sought to turn Muslims and Christians against each other.
When, in the 7th century, the Muslim armies arrived in Karak in one of their first battles against the Byzantines, records and local historians state that many Christian tribes sided with the Muslim army, seeing them as liberating Arab tribes against the foreign Byzantines.
Under the brutal reign of the Crusaders, Christian Arabs in Karak suffered alongside Muslims, and under the ensuing Muslim regimes, Christians in Karak gained full citizenship and rights, which they enjoyed through the rule of the Ottoman Turks.
During a bloody Ottoman crackdown in 1910, Christian tribes offered protection to Muslim leaders.
They were always in close proximity. Christian and Muslim tribes would pitch their tents together on pastoral lands. As they became settled, in the 20th century, Christian and Muslim families built stone houses side-by-side, sharing a communal courtyard.
“Christian and Muslim families literally lived together for centuries,” says Karak historian Nayef Nawiseh.
“We have a unique situation in Karak, where community comes first and religion is second.”
As in other historically mixed-faith communities elsewhere in the Levant, Muslims and Christians, whether merchants or Bedouin herders, would rely on each other for access to markets and the trade of their wares and livestock.
But in Karak, the bonds between Christians and Muslims went far beyond economic interdependence. Over the centuries, residents would rely on each other to broker disputes and represent each other in important rites of passage.
Karak oral histories are replete with stories of priests carrying the Bible and walking between feuding Muslim tribes, and with Muslim tribes brokering disputes between feuding Christian churches (Orthodox and Latin).
To this day, respected Christian and Muslim tribal leaders will represent each other’s clans at rituals to ask for the hand of someone in marriage, or to request a tribal atwa, or settlement, in the event of a feud or an accidental death.
Such reliance on either side for major social milestones or for conflict resolution has transformed the community from “coexisting” to what many call “co-dependent.”
“Here in Karak, you cannot divide us as Christians and Muslims as we function as one and we rely on one another,” says Mohammed Maaytah, mayor of the Karak village of Adir.
“We are too intertwined; you would have to demolish the whole city and surrounding villages.”
Church and mosque
Another key to Karak’s harmony is the role of, and reverence for, each other’s houses of worship.
When Latin and Orthodox Churches opened in Karak in the 19th century, they opened the city’s first schools and health clinics, serving Muslims and Christians equally. Generations graduated from Orthodox and Latin schools, with nuns and priests as their teachers and headmasters.
“As children, our teachers were ‘sisters,’ and we volunteered to clean the church – even though we are Muslims, it was an important part of our lives,” says Maisoun Soub, 40, co-founder of Mesha of Moab Cultural Society, a local NGO that involves Karak youths in culture.
In the villages surrounding the city, the churches provided the only schools and health centers in the area until the late 20th century.
A Muslim tribe provided the black basalt stone that adorns St. George’s Church in Adir on the outskirts of Karak. In return, a few decades later, Christian residents donated land and raised money to expand the mosque across the street.
And to this day, many Christians fast during the holy month of Ramadan, while older generations of Muslims had baptized their children as an extra blessing.
Due to Jordan’s relative stability, Karak has been spared the conflicts that have inflamed sectarian tensions in nearby Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
But residents try to learn from their neighbors’ misfortunes, and are ever vigilant to ensure sectarianism does not emerge in their city. Any attempt to draw lines between Muslim and Christian residents, from outside or within, is met with fierce resistance.
A key has been a keen understanding of each side’s religious sensitivities.
In 2015, when a Christian member of Parliament from Karak insulted Khalid ibn Walid, a revered companion of the prophet Muhammad, by calling him a drunkard and a “womanizer,” his tribe denounced and excommunicated him the next day.
Late last year, as sectarian tensions grew in Amman over the killing of controversial Christian writer Nahed Hattar – who was gunned down for blasphemy and insulting Islam – Karaki Muslim women painted a mural of Jesus on St. George's Church in a sign of solidarity.
“Sectarianism is very alien to us and is a challenge to our very identity. We respond to each attempt to divide us with a message: we still stand strong together,” says Izdehar Soub, one of the muralists.
And residents remain wary of attempts by outside groups – such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist preachers, or Western churches – to encourage Muslim or Christian identity, or mix religion with politics.
As part of this vigilance, Karak has developed another trait it believes other communities could learn from: de-escalation.
When a dispute erupts in the city, community and tribal leaders react to it as an individual case rather than a tribal, or sectarian matter.
When electoral violence erupted in Adir last September, vandals attempted to set fire to buildings, including St. George's Church. The church and the community dealt with the attack as election-inspired vandalism, rather than a targeting of Christians, and to this day speak of the incident carefully.
“We are in an age when perception, rather than actual facts, matter and travel much faster,” says Father Boulos Baqaeen of St. George’s Church.
“We deal with such incidents on the individual level and stop to look at the motives behind each incident rather than immediately concluding ‘this is Christian vs. Muslim.’”
Yet fears for the future persist.
Four of the ISIS attackers last December were from Karak. According to sources, the ISIS cell’s original targets were Karak’s churches during New Year’s celebrations, mirroring its devastating targeting of Christians in Egypt.
With extremist groups’ long reach through social media and the internet, Karak leaders privately question whether their community model can withstand the increased challenges of the digital age.
“We look around the region, and we have to ask at the end of the day: Is Jordan next?” says Father Boulos.
But they insist they will not face it alone.
“Whoever threatens one of us will have to face all of us,” says Habashneh.