Statement of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief: End visit to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

10 September 2013

Presentation of Preliminary Findings


I would like to begin this short overview of preliminary observations by expressing my profound gratitude to the Government of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for having invited my team and me to undertake a visit to this country in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The visit officially started on 2 September 2013 and formally ends with this presentation of preliminary findings.

In the last ten days, my team and I greatly enjoyed the proverbial Jordanian hospitality. The Government supported this visit in manifold ways, for instance, by exchanging views, facilitating contacts with representatives of different institutions and providing logistical support and information. I am also very much indebted to the UN Country Team led by the UN Resident Coordinator in Amman for their professional cooperation, support and advice. Finally, I would like to thank the numerous interlocutors from all branches of the State (administration, parliament and judiciary), different religious communities, civil society organizations (including organizations focusing on women’s rights), academic institutions, media and others for sharing their experiences, views and assessments. The discussions, from which I benefitted enormously, took place in a friendly and productive atmosphere.

The purpose of this visit was to collect first-hand information about the situation of freedom of religion or belief in Jordan. The full report, based on the observations made here in Jordan, as well as further information collected after the visit will be available for everyone on the website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ( early next year and will be officially presented to the UN Human Rights Council during its session in March 2014. What I can present today merely has the status of preliminary findings; it is not the full and final report, which will be more comprehensive. I hope that the exchange that started here in Jordan will continue after this visit so that I can further benefit from the expertise of the many interlocutors I had the pleasure to meet here.

General Remarks

Jordan as a safe haven and voice of religious moderation in a volatile region

Internationally and regionally, Jordan enjoys the reputation of a country which practices and promotes peaceful coexistence between followers of different religions, in particular Muslims and Christians. For instance, in November 2010, the Jordanian Government tabled a resolution on interfaith harmony, which the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus. Inter alia, this resolution introduced the “Interfaith Harmony Week” which has since been celebrated every February. This is merely one example of the commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation that Jordan has shown throughout many years in the international arena.

The same holds true concerning the Arab region. Being itself an Islamic country with a vast majority of Sunni Muslims, Jordan has taken the lead in promoting peaceful interreligious coexistence in the region. This also includes initiatives to enhance the awareness of religious pluralism, which has shaped the Arab region since times immemorial. Representatives of religious minorities with whom I had a chance to communicate on these issues unanimously expressed their appreciation of Jordan’s commitment in this area, Inter alia, they pointed to a conference hosted in Amman just a few days ago in which His Majesty King Abdullah II received Christian leaders from the entire Arab region to hear their various concerns and discuss with them the prospects of Christianity in the Middle East.

Jordan, furthermore, is perceived as a voice of religious moderation in an environment where religion has become increasingly politicized in recent years. Ample experience from different parts of the world shows that harnessing religion for narrow purposes of power politics nearly always amounts to setting groups of people against one another, thus often poisoning the relationship between communities which had previously coexisted peacefully. Moreover, amalgamating religious messages with rather mundane political purposes may also undermine the spiritual attractiveness of religion in the eyes of many people. When discussing this topic, representatives of the Government and of various religious communities repeatedly expressed concerns that the politicization of religion in conjunction with religious extremism, which so far has been rather marginal in Jordan, may become more and more influential. Against this background, they all acknowledged and appreciated Jordan’s role as a voice of religious moderation in the region, as evidenced inter alia in the “Amman Message” of 2004. The “Amman Message” presents Islam as a religion of open-mindedness and open-heartedness which promotes amicable relations with adherents of other faiths.

Before moving to domestic issues of freedom of religion or belief in Jordan, I would like to touch at least briefly on a topic which certainly would warrant a much more detailed assessment, namely, the enormous burden that Jordan has shouldered by hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees who left their home countries as a result of wars, civil wars and concomitant humanitarian disasters. Compared to its population, Jordan has already accommodated more refugees than any other State in the world, and it is to be expected that even more will seek refuge in this country. When visiting the refugee camp in Zaatari, I gained first-hand impressions of the difficult circumstances in which Syrian refugee women, men and children live. This also includes a religious dimension. People use tents as provisional prayer places and religious leaders play a key role in managing family affairs and other community issues. How to accommodate religious diversity in refugee camps without creating religious divisiveness among refugees traumatized by recent experiences of extreme hostility is a huge challenge.

I had a particularly moving experience when visiting a parish school in the district of Karak where refugee children receive additional education in mathematics, grammar and languages. These children, whose families have fled from Syria, need extra training provided during the afternoon to be able to keep up with their regular public school courses. The teachers and assistants who provide this extra education do not receive any salaries and act on a purely voluntary basis.
A domestic climate of tolerance

Beside the vast majority of Muslims, Jordan is home to a Christian minority of around 3 percent of the population. While Christianity in Jordan includes a broad variety of traditional and less-traditional denominations, almost all Muslims belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The number of Shias residing in the country is very small and has been estimated to comprise a few hundred persons. The Bani Maaroof, usually called “Druze”, constitute another small part of the religious minority population. According to conjectures, the Bani Maaroof may include up to 15,000 people. Jordan also has a community of Baha’is whose numbers may range between a few hundred to one thousand persons. All estimates remain vague and controversial, since established statistical information concerning the religious composition of Jordanian society does not exist. A topic hardly explored is the number of de-facto non-believers, i.e. persons who may be registered as Muslims or Christians but do not consider themselves as really belonging to any religion and may in part see themselves as agnostics or atheists.

The relationship of people of different faiths, in particular Muslims and Christians, is very positive and amicable. Representatives from both communities have described their relationships as “brotherly”, and many see this as a major accomplishment in which they take pride. This positive atmosphere is cherished on a daily basis in neighbourhoods in which Muslims and Christians have lived together – often since times immemorial. I heard many narratives about people felicitating each other on their respective religious holidays, sometimes even celebrating together or attending funerals jointly regardless of the denomination of the deceased. For example, I heard about a Muslim student who volunteered to play the organ during a Christian devotion recently held in a private school. When visiting a number of schools – both public and private – I saw students from Christian and Muslim families learning together under the supervision of teachers who likewise came from different religious backgrounds. Obviously, schools play a pivotal role in sustaining and further developing the culture of peaceful coexistence, since they facilitate daily encounters of students during the formative years of young persons. Religious differences are mostly seen as something natural, perhaps not even worth highlighting. Indeed, teachers and headmasters told me that religious differences do not play a major role, if any, in the daily operations of their school.

On the level of State institutions, measures have been taken to further support good relations between Muslims and Christians. This includes the minimum guarantee of 9 out of 150 seats in the Lower Chamber of Parliament for Christian candidates. Unlike in some other countries, in which minorities constitute separate electorates, the Jordanian election system provides for one unified electorate, which implies that Muslims can also vote for Christian candidates and vice versa; reportedly, this also happens in practice. While a formal quota concerning the religious composition of the cabinet does not exist, Christians have de facto held positions in the Government alongside Muslims. They also hold high ranking posts in State institutions, such as the police force, public media and universities.

Members of religious minorities have told me that they can generally practice their religion freely without facing unreasonable obstacles from the administration or within their social environment. The construction or renovation of churches or other religious buildings is usually undertaken without undue bureaucratic stipulations, and people can manifest their beliefs visibly and audibly, for instance, by wearing (or not wearing) religious garments, holding public processions, performing rituals or announcing prayers. Moreover, members of minorities generally do not suffer from discrimination in the labour market, at their work place, in hospitals or in the housing market.

Remarkably, this rather positive assessment was also largely shared by members of minority communities who have not received recognition as religious communities, such as followers of non-recognized Christian denominations (e.g. Baptists) or members of the post-Islamic Baha’i community. Although facing some serious problems due to the lack of formal recognition, the adherents of these groups spoke positively about living in Jordan. Apart from specific issues of concern (which I will address later), these individuals can generally live like other Jordanians, with whom they by and large entertain good relationships.

As a general caveat, I should mention that most of our discussions took place in Amman. I repeatedly heard that in remote rural areas, in which conservative tribal traditions continue to permeate and shape all aspects of social interaction, the climate may be very different. Reportedly, in those regions, in which Christians typically do not reside, they may be seen as not really fitting into an Arab society. Another caveat concerns the impact of social, economic and educational factors. Their significance for understanding the dynamics between religious groups still needs to be explored systematically. The assumption that these factors are of great importance seems very plausible.

Specific issues

School education

One of the most pleasant experiences of the last days was visiting a number of schools, both public and private. I could see how teachers and students from different religious backgrounds live together and learn together. I appreciated the friendly atmosphere in all of those schools, and I particularly enjoyed a frank and intense discussion with a group of older students. According to information provided by headmasters, schools sometimes also cater to the local population in general, for instance, by inviting people living in the neighbourhood to use libraries, borrow books and participate in school festivities.

Whereas private Christian schools offer religious instruction for both Muslim and Christian students, who receive an education based on the tenets of their respective faiths, public schools so far only cater to Muslim students. In public schools, Christians can decide whether they wish to participate in Islamic classes or whether they prefer to leave the classroom and, for instance, spend time in the library. It is important that no student is coercively exposed to religious instruction that goes against his/her religious conviction or the convictions of his/her parents. The headmasters of the schools that I visited assured me that this requirement, which is explicitly enshrined in international standards on freedom of religion or belief, is honoured in practice, including by providing appropriate facilities for non-attending students.

Representatives of Christian communities have expressed their desire that public schools should also offer Christian instruction. Requests and practical proposals on this issue have also repeatedly been presented to the respective Governmental institutions for approval but have so far been unsuccessful. Representatives of Christian communities further emphasized that internal diversity among Christians would not present an obstacle, since they had already largely agreed on the curricular basis of religious instruction.

In addition to religious instruction in the strict sense of the word, i.e. education given with the intention of familiarising students with their own faith, the school can and should also provide information about religions, philosophies and beliefs in the context of history, geography, literature or other disciplines. This should include basic information about religions that do not traditionally exist in the country, in order to overcome misunderstandings and negative stereotypes. Equally important is information about intra-religious diversity, including different Christian denominations and different branches of Islam. I was told that many negative stereotypes against Shias exist in Jordan. They even seem to have increased in recent years. On the one hand, these stereotypes reflect the current political conflicts within the Arab region; on the other hand, they may also be based on gross misunderstandings of the religious teachings of Shia Islam. School education can and should play a role in overcoming misunderstandings by providing appropriate information.

Representatives of Christian communities requested that history books used in schools should more appropriately reflect the Christian heritage in Jordan and other Arab countries which, they stated, is largely ignored in most text books. Moreover, they asserted that if Christianity is addressed in teaching materials, it is typically done from an Islamic point of view, which does not do justice to the self-understanding of Christians. There is certainly much room for improvement in this broad area.
Recognition and registration of religious communities

While Islam is constitutionally the official religion of the State, Christian churches are also recognized by the State. This recognition implies a number of privileges, including the possibility of deciding legal matters concerning personal status in their own ecclesiastical courts and largely on the basis of their own respective canon laws. Recognized religious communities include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church (“Latins”), Greek Catholics (“Melkites”), the Maronite Church, the Anglican Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Seventh-day Adventists and others.

Some other Christian denominations, such as e.g. Baptists or Pentacostalists, have registered under the law of immovable property, which gives them a status largely comparable to registered associations. Although having the status as a collective legal personality, which is important for organizing community matters in a sustainable manner, they understandably still feel disadvantaged in comparison to officially recognized churches. Beside the symbolic impact of an unequal status, the most relevant practical problems arise when legal questions concerning personal status come up. In such situations, members of non-recognized Christian churches have the option of either submitting their issues to the ecclesiastical courts of that denomination to which they feel the highest degree of closeness, or to resort to regular courts.

When responding to a request for full recognition as a religious community on an equal footing with traditional churches, the Government generally consults with the Council of Churches, even though the law does not require this. However, from a human rights perspective, questions of recognition or registration should not be made dependent on the consensus of other denominations. Instead, applications for recognition or registration should be decided by the administration on the basis of transparent criteria, which are applicable to all groups, without discrimination.

A few small communities, including the Baha’is and some Evangelical denominations, do not have any status as a legal personality. This leads to big problems when it comes to organizing a sustainable community life. For example, a community lacking any status as a collective legal entity cannot open bank accounts, purchase real estate or employ professional staff for educational or other purposes. Consequently, such activities can only be undertaken by private individuals operating in the service of the community. The situation can always change when such a person dies or for any reason cannot continue to function on behalf of the community. Under such precarious conditions, the development of an infrastructure needed for sustaining community affairs is certainly difficult. This raises serious concerns under freedom of religion or belief, which is not a right merely of individuals but also of communities.

Issues of personal status

Legal questions concerning marriage contracts and family matters such as, divorce, custody of children and inheritance, usually summarized under the heading of “personal status,” are generally left to religious courts, which operate on the basis of different religious laws. With regard to the broad majority of Muslims living in the country, sharia courts take care of these issues. As previously mentioned, recognized Christian communities have their independent ecclesiastical courts which operate on the basis of their respective versions of canon law.

Within this pluralistic legal system, individuals not fitting into the pattern of recognized religious communities face problems when wishing to regulate their personal status affairs in a predictable, fair and non-discriminatory manner. With increasing degrees of seriousness, this affects members of non-recognized Christian denominations, the Baha’is and converts from Islam to Christianity or to another religion. Another set of problems originates from the way inter-religious marriages are dealt with in the system of personal status laws. In case the husband is Muslim, sharia law applies. Marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted, with the consequence that the man has to convert to Islam in order to contract a valid marriage under sharia law. The existing system of personal status law, while accommodating legal pluralism, reflects a clear inequality between men and women as well as between members of different religions.

As mentioned earlier, members of non-recognized Christian denominations have to manage their personal status issues by appealing to the “hospitality” of another Christian denomination or by resorting to regular courts. In discussions with members of non-recognized Christian denominations I learned that although the situation leads to complications and extra-burdens, in practice their issues mostly can be resolved.

The situation for the Baha’is is much more complicated. Understanding themselves as a post-Islamic religious community, the Baha’is are not recognized as an independent religion. They told me that in their ID cards or on other official documents, they are either identified as Muslims or as not having any religion, both of which go against their self-understanding. Moreover, this leads to a number of problems concerning the validity of marriage contracts and the legal status of children born in such circumstances. When presenting these issues, the Baha’is expressed their appreciation of the spirit of cooperation which they have generally experienced in the Civil Affairs Department of the Ministry of the Interior. In most cases pragmatic solutions could be found. However, this does not alter the fact that their legal status situation remains precarious and discriminatory.

Even more complicated is the situation of converts from Islam to Christianity. This also includes re-converts who after having converted from Christianity to Islam later turn back to their original religion. Although I could not find any precise data, it seems that the number of reconversions is somewhat higher than the number of conversions from Islam. In general conversions do not take place on a large scale. Although in Jordan conversions away from Islam do not constitute a punishable offense under the criminal code, the civil law implications of the conversion are grave. Depending on the circumstances of each individual case, it can lead to the dissolution of the marriage, loss of custody for one’s own children and exclusion from inheritance. On their ID cards, converts are treated as not having any religion, even though they may understand themselves as Christian.

In the case where a Christian male converts to Islam, his under-age children (i.e. under 18 years old) are automatically registered as Muslims, while his adult children may remain Christians. Reportedly, this has led to situations in which children, who had never received Islamic instruction, have had to pass an exam on Islamic teachings since they were treated as Muslims after their father’s conversion. In the case where a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband also has to convert to Islam in order to remain married, based on the assumption that a non-Muslim man cannot be married to a Muslim woman. I also learned that in case of divorce between a Muslim and a Christian, the Christian wife will lose custody of her children once they have reached the age of seven years. The situation of Muslim women in divorce settlements is better, since they exercise their custody rights until the child has reached the age of 14 years; from then onward the child himself or herself decides which parent to entrust with custody.

When discussing the various problems arising from the intricacies of personal status, I heard different proposals. While some interlocutors advocated a pragmatic handling of complicated cases largely within the logic of the existing legal system, others expressed their desire to go beyond, for instance, by establishing the option for everyone to have access to a non-denominational (“civilian”) family law, if the concerned persons so wish. From the perspective of freedom of religion or belief, it seems important in any case to handle personal status questions in a manner that accommodates the existing religious or belief-related pluralism in fairness and without discrimination. I would like to emphasize in this context that, according to international standards, pluralism must also include the freedom to hold and manifest convictions that go beyond traditionally recognized religions. Moreover, freedom of religion or belief also includes the right to change one’s religion or belief. These requirements of international human rights law may be at odds with some religious traditions, as they have developed in history. At the same time, however, they fit together with an insight formulated in virtually all religions, namely, that authentic faith must derive from the person’s heart and that it cannot be the business of the Government or any other earthly power to interfere coercively in this sphere.

One practical proposal repeatedly presented in order to reduce risks of discrimination, is the abolishment of the category “religion” in ID cards, similar to Jordanian passports which no longer include this category. I would indeed encourage the removal of the category “religion” in ID cards. Every person should feel to hold, express and manifest their religious convictions in private as well as in public, but no one’s beliefs should be exposed unless they so wish.

Increasing influence of religious extremism?

A topic which came up in a number of discussions concerns religious extremism. Obviously, Jordan has accomplished a tradition of religious moderation, and extreme interpretations of religious traditions have so far had only marginal influence. However, I frequently heard concerns that this might change in the long run, as some radical voices both within Christianity and within Islam seem to be gaining ground. When assessing this problem, differences between urban and rural areas as well as between different social and economic strata of the society must be taken into account, since they certainly have an enormous impact.

Religious extremism typically implies the rejection of pluralism not only between religions but also – and often in even more aggressive ways – within the respective religion. As many manifestations of hostility in the Arab region sadly demonstrate, the divide between different branches of Islam is currently widening. Jordan with its overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslims has fortunately not seen any serious intra-Muslim conflicts, and it is not likely that they may break out in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I have heard stories about mounting resentments against Shias. Apart from politically motivated hostility, these resentments may also reflect religious stereotypes which should be critically addressed in school education and through other initiatives. Inter alia, it seems advisable always to accommodate a sufficient degree of intra-religious diversity in initiatives of inter-religious dialogue. Such projects should furthermore ensure a substantive participation of women who often are forgotten or marginalized in projects of promoting inter-religious and intra-religious communication.

The issue of incitement to religious hatred – often as a result of the religious extremism – has attracted increased attention in the international community. This has resulted in the Rabat Plan of Action on advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility of violence. Based on the series of regional seminars organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Plan of Action was elaborated in October 2012 in the capital of Morocco. While setting a high threshold for restrictive measure against extreme forms of hate speech, which have to meet a number of precisely defined criteria to be legitimate, the Rabat Plan of Action chiefly emphasizes the need for “alternative speech”. For instance, to challenge entrepreneurs of hatred in their usual claims to speak in the name of “the silent majority”, it is important that the majority does not remain silent. Civil society activities which visibly and audibly reject manifestations of hatred can have very practical effects in discouraging those advocating hatred while at the same time encouraging their targets who should feel that they are not left alone. The Plan of Actions specifically calls upon political and religious leaders to speak out “firmly and promptly against intolerance, discriminatory stereotyping and instances of hate speech”. Other measures recommended in the Plan of Action include voluntary ethical guidelines for media reporting connected with self-regulatory supervision, support for community media, facilitation of a non-discriminatory participation of minorities also within media catering to mainstream society, inter- and intra-religious dialogue initiatives, public awareness raising campaigns and educational efforts in schools.

The Rabat Plan of Action is based on experiences that many countries from different regions have gained in addressing collective religious hatred in effective ways while fully preserving – or creating – a climate of freedom of expression to ensure that people can publicly express their grievances and problems. Many of the measure recommended in this Plan fit quite well with activities that have already been undertaken by the Government of Jordan. At the same time, it might be useful for the Government to invite religious communities, civil society organizations, media representatives and other stakeholders to jointly explore the full potential of the Rabat Plan of Action for Jordan when it comes to combating manifestations of religious hatred caused by religious extremism.

Amicable relations between people of different religious or philosophical persuasions can never be taken for granted. They need to be defended, cherished and further developed based on respect for everyone’s freedom of religion or belief. This requires continuous efforts of building trust through institutions and through communication. In the last days I have seen much commitment and good will of many people in Government, religious communities, civil society organizations and others to further move along this path. Visiting Jordan was not merely an interesting, but in many ways also an encouraging experience for which I am very grateful.