The Role of Religion in Global Society at the University of CA – Santa Barbara

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the University of California – Santa Barbara’s Luce Project on Religion in Global Civil Society. The topic of discussion was “The Role of Religion in Global Society: A Focus on the Middle East and Africa.” The dialogue was very thought provoking and included questions about the significance of religion in international development.


Participants included academics, practitioners, and religious leaders from various cultural backgrounds and faiths.

Here is a brief response to one of the questions I was asked:

Role of Religion on World Visions’s work in the Middle East:

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization providing hope and assistance to tens of millions of people in nearly 100 countries around the world. Motivated by our faith in Jesus Christ, World Vision serves alongside the poor and oppressed as a demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all people. World Vision serves all people, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender. We seek to honor God in all that we do; to honor our donors and the public by being transparent about our motivation; and to honor those we serve as well as our colleagues in the field. Our passion is for the world’s poorest children. The ability of these children to reach their God-given potential depends on the physical, social, and spiritual strength of their families and communities. To help secure a better future for each child, we focus on lasting, community-based transformation. We partner with individuals and communities, empowering them to develop sustainable access to clean water, food supplies, health care, education, and economic opportunities. World Vision works in several regions of the Middle East including Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine. Throughout the years World Vision has been involved in the Middle East, serious conflicts throughout the region have had profound impact on the lives of children. As a Christian organization, World Vision affirms that all people have the right to life, food, liberty, security, education, and adequate health care.  These rights also have been enshrined in such international agreements as the UN International Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), highlighting the responsibility we all have to ensure these rights are protected for all children throughout the Middle East.

Please note: While the above paragraph speaks to World Vision’s work in the ME, this blog is personal and the views here represent exclusively the owner of this blog.

Amman, Jordan: A little Biblical history…

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small country with a population of only around 6.5 million people – for reference, that is a smaller population than the city of New York. During the past few months, I have been in and out of Jordan several times. Each time I visit, I have come to appreciate the country more and more. During my first trip to Jordan (Spring of 2009), I did not get the best impression. Our tour guide was obnoxious – I don’t mean to be so blunt – but it is true. Our driver was a maniac – we saw our lives flash before our eyes several times during that trip! In case you think I am exaggerating, the accident that we got into on the Kings Highway helps to prove my point. When we went to visit Mt. Nebo (where Moses died), one of the Jordanians at the gate made some rude comments to me including “Hey baby, my name is Moses… let me lead you to the Promised Land.” An original pick-up line, if nothing else. All that to say, I wasn’t all that impressed. However, some of the biblical history of Jordan caught my attention. Below is something that I wrote after returning from that first trip which tells a little bit about some of the things we learned about Amman, the capital of Jordan. 

The flag of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Interestingly, this flag is the same as Palestine's except for the colors are in different order and the Palestinian flag does not have a star.

April 19, 2009

One of my favorite things about our time in the Holy Land was that almost every place we visited had not only one story… but perhaps two or three that happened in the very same place. The Judean Wilderness is where the Israelites traveled under the leadership of Joshua toward the town of Jericho… where David ran and hid from Saul amongst the rocks and the stones… the same place where John the Baptist had his ministry… the same place where Jesus was tempted… the same desert where the Dead Sea scrolls were found along the coast of the Dead Sea. This blew my mind!

We arrived in Amman, Jordan and traveled toIsrael following a similar path to the way that the Israelites would have entered the promised land. Amman is one of the oldest and longest inhabited cities in the world. In the OT – it is referred to as Rabbath Ammon, the capital city of the Ammonites (around 1200 BC).

The Ammonites were descendents of Lot– the nephew of Abraham. In Genesis 19, we learn a bit about their origin. Sodom and Gomorah had been destroyed… Lot’s wife had died – you may remember she turned back to look at the destruction of the two cities and was turned into a pillar of salt. Lots two daughters were afraid. One of their fears was that everyone had been destroyed – so they would not be able to have children. So… what did they do (this is actually a rather horrific story) – they got their father drunk and both slept with him. They both became pregnant and each had a son. One daughter had Moab– who became the Moabites and the other daughter had Ben Ammi – whose people were known as the Ammonites. Amman, Jordan still carries their name even to this day.
But my favorite story about the city ofAmman has to do with King David. The King of the Ammonites had died – and the kings son took over the throne. 2 Samuel 10 verse 2 tells us that David decided to show kindness to the new king – so he sent out a delegation to express sympathy to the son (whose name was Hanun) concerning his father. But… some of the Ammonite commanders didn’t trust David (by the way – they were known to be a ruthless bunch)… they thought that David was sending his people to them to spy on them. So, they decided that they were going to disgrace David and his men… So, do you know what they did? I can’t believe that I had never read this story in the Bible before… The Ammonite king and his commanders seized David’s men and shaved off half of each man’s beard… but that wasn’t all! They cut off their garments at the buttocks… and sent them back to David. 

During that time – the only time a man’s beard would be cut off was if a man was in mourning – or if he was a slave. This was a defaming thing to do to David’s delegation. So much so that when David received word of it – he told his men to wait in Jericho until their beards could grow back so that they would not return toJerusalemin shame. Cutting off the clothes of the men – especially at the buttocks – made David’s men look ridiculous and was similarly a sign of shame.

Such was my first encounter with the Biblical history of Amman… a story with which I was not at all familiar prior to my visit! All of this reminds me of God’s words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 2:18-29: “When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendents of Lot.”

Palestinian Identity

Frequently in conversation about the conflict here in the Middle East, language will be used about the “Arab problem.” Most countries in the Middle East did not have a strong national identity until the mid-to-late twentieth century as they emerged out of the Ottoman Empire and the period of the British and French mandates. This does not, however, deny the people of an origin or identity – it just means they didn’t identify themselves in terms of a nation or a “state”. Nonetheless, notions of Palestinian identity, has been around for centuries and millennia and may be better understood by looking more closely at the cultural and sociological identification of the Semitic people living in the land of Palestine, some of whom were of Jewish origin. I wish that I had the time to delve more deeply into this question of identity – because it is an important one! In regard to Palestinian identity, even in the 21st century, the State of Israel often uses language of “Arab” – a more general term that denies the unique connection of the Palestinian people to the land.

As far as I have been able to determine, there are several different categories that are used to apply to the citizenship (or lack thereof) of Palestinians living within the State of Israel or under their occupation.

Arab Israelis (or Palestinians with an Israeli passport). Many of these Israeli citizens prefer to be called “Palestinian citizens of Israel” rather than “Arab Israelis”. They are members of families who remained in Israel after the 1948 war and in 2008 “Arab citizens of Israel” made up about 20 percent of the Israeli population. In 1948, approximately 150,000 Palestinian residents of the land became citizens of Israel after the establishment of the state.

Jerusalemites. Arabs who lived in Israel (Jerusalem) after the 6 Day War, they previously held Jordanian passports… they do not have a passport from any country, but have a “Jerusalem ID”. They have less privileges than Arab Israelis, but more privileges (at least in regard to traveling) than Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. They, with harassment, can travel through check-points between Israel and the West Bank. I have read some reports that claimed they rejected Israeli citizenship, but many of the Palestinian Jerusalem families I know have told them it was never offered.

Palestinians Living in the Occupied Territories (West Bank/Gaza). Again, most of this population has no passports. They have West Bank/Gaza ID’s. Some West Bankers have Jordanian passports, but are not considered “citizens” of Jordan – they were issued the passports as travel documents. West Bank and Gazans must obtain travel visas to cross check-points. For example, Ramallah is only 6 miles from Jerusalem, but Palestinians living in Ramallah cannot travel through the checkpoint to Jerusalem without special permission. This permission is very difficult to obtain. This has been the case since the second intifada and the building of the separation barrier.

Palestinian Diaspora. Palestinians living around the world (e.g. U.S., etc.). I have heard there are more Palestinians living in Chile than in the West Bank.

Palestinian Refugees. In the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt… these Palestinians have official “refugee designation” status from the UN. They are people or descendents of those who were displaced by what they call Nakba or the catastrophe of the 1948 war with Israel. Again, this population has no passport. Palestinian Refugees are not absorbed into the regions where they are living because they are maintaining the “right to return” to their homes and lands that were confiscated during the 1948 war. Many refugee families still have property deeds and the keys to their homes in Israel. Refugees are often the poorest of the Palestinians. Palestinian refugees constitute the largest refugee population in the world – now more than 5 million.

Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan: Tumult in the Middle East

    I haven’t written in about a week… partially because I don’t know where to start. I have much to say about my time in Lebanon – visiting poor shanty-town communities, Palestinian refugee camps, and homes for street children who have been abandoned by society. A community that is governed by Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims, and Druze. Lebanon is a complex, diverse, beautiful, and harsh place… I have much to say about the things that I have learned. However, the current tumult in the Middle East once again has people all over the Arab world glued to their televisions watching the horror of people protesting against unjust governments and advocating for a better life. However, other countries protests are not as peaceful – or as non-violent – as Egypt’s recent “success” in ousting Mubarak.
    Over the past couple of days we have watched as the Libyan people protest against Muammar Gaddafi – who has ruled for more than 40 years. News reports that yesterday (Monday) more than 50+ people were killed as the government responded with violence against the people protesting. People are marching in the countryside and in some of the main cities such as Benghazi and Tripoli. Today (Tuesday) we learned that Gaddafi’s government not only shot into the crowds, but they also began using airplanes to attack their own people. The news is using words like “massacre” and unprecedented violence. The news shows pictures of people covered in blood everywhere. Like Egypt, Libya has been cut off from the world – there are no telephones – landlines and cell phones have been cut; there is no internet; no communication with the outside world. Many leaders in Libya’s government are resigning because of the “deadly force used against the protestors” (AlJazeera).
    AlJazeera made the following report: “Gaddafi’s guards started shooting people in the second day and they shot two people only. We had on that day in Al Bayda city only 300 protesters. When they killed two people, we had more than 5,000 at their funeral, and when they killed 15 people the next day, we had more than 50,000 the following day… This means that the more Gaddafi kills people, the more people go into the streets.”
    Gaddafi’s son recently went on television and threatened the Libyan people stating that the country would become a “bloodbath” if the protests against his father’s regime did not cease. He asserted that Libya is a different country than Tunisia and Egypt and that the government would not be overturned so easily. One of the cries being heard from Libya – through the few satellite phones possessed by journalists that have not yet been blocked – is this question: “Where is the West?” Libyans are asking why America and other western nations have not come to the aid of the people of Libya. I hope that my friends, family, and contacts in the U.S. and other parts of the non-Arab world are paying attention to what is happening in the Middle East. Country by country seems to be infected by an emerging group of young leaders who are calling for change, democracy, liberty, and freedom. As these “revolutions” persist – the question of what is to follow is a crucial one…
    Similarly anti-government protests persist in Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan… as the growing unrest continues to escalate in several countries throughout the Middle East.