ISTANBUL Jordan has increased pressure on foreign Christians living in the kingdom, expelling many long-time residents over the past 13 months in what local churches see as an attack on their legitimacy.
Authorities deported or refused residence permits to at least 27 expatriate Christian families and individuals in 2007, a number of them working with local churches or studying at a Christian seminary, Compass Direct News has confirmed.
In all but one case, officials refused to provide written explanations for the decisions. But many of those expelled told Compass that they had been questioned by intelligence officers regarding evangelism of Muslims.
"They said that I am a threat to Jordanian security and I am making the society unstable," said Hannu Lahtinen, a Finnish pastor deported in December. "They have a thousand ways to say you are preaching the Gospel."
"We are a legal entity, and many of these foreigners have been granted visas as clergy working in legal Jordanian churches," Nazarene pastor Afeef Halasa said. "Suddenly kicking them out without giving a reason communicates that our churches are not legitimate."
Though not illegal, Christian "public proselytism" of Muslims is against government policy, according to the U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom in Jordan.
But a Jordanian spokesperson told Compass that the government only deported foreigners who had broken the law or had been dishonest in their application for residency.
"There have been incidents where individuals have violated the legal terms of their residence in the country or have deeply offended religious and public sensibilities, or both," said the official, who requested his name be withheld.
According to pastors from Jordan's five official evangelical churches, recognized by the government as "societies," authorities have long provided a wide degree of freedom for religious minorities.
Uncertainty about the future of evangelical Christians in Jordan caused almost all local and foreign pastors who spoke with Compass to request anonymity. Several foreign Christians, now outside the kingdom, agreed to be interviewed solely based on the hope that publicity might help halt the crackdown.
Christians, including Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, make up 3 percent of Jordan's population but hold almost 10 percent of the seats in parliament. Catholic and Orthodox churches have their own family court system.
Evangelicals, who number approximately 5,000, have fewer rights than the historical churches but are tax-exempt and can sponsor residence permits for foreign clergy.
In July 2006, Jordan published the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its official Gazette, giving the covenant, which protects freedom of religion, force of law.
Christians from the United States, Europe, South Korea, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq were among those deported or refused visas in 2007.
Intelligence officers handcuffed and blindfolded Finnish pastor Lahtinen after detaining him at an Amman gas station in early December. Police held the clergyman for two days and then deported him without an official explanation. Lahtinen's wife and two young sons returned to Finland the following week.
One month later, upon official inquiry from the Finnish Foreign Ministry, Jordanian authorities provided a written explanation of the pastor's deportation.
Lahtinen was accused of being a threat to the country's social stability and illegally residing in the kingdom, and he was in personal danger, according to a letter from Jordan's Foreign Ministry to the Finnish embassy, Finland's Ambassador Pertti Harvola confirmed.
A Jordanian government spokesperson told Compass that officials had repeatedly warned Lahtinen about his "activity."
"It was found that he had been residing here illegally, with no work nor residence permit," the official said.
"They have never warned me," said Lahtinen, who said police had interrogated him before him deportation about whether he was holding religious meetings for Muslims in his home.
Ambassador Harvola confirmed Lahtinen's claims that he been legally working as a pastor at the time of his deportation. Lahtinen's year-long residence permit to work as a clergyman for the Assemblies of God church had been renewed in September 2007.
Seminary Students Deported
A U.S. citizen handcuffed and kept in police custody for two days before being deported in August said that he had been forced to sign papers without being allowed to read them. He said that only when he grabbed one paper from an officer's hands and pulled it through the bars of his cell door did he have a few moments to read that he was considered a "threat to national security."
The Christian requested that his name and further details of his deportation be withheld for security reasons.
At least 10 of those deported in August and September 2007 were non-Jordanian Arab students at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. In addition, Jordan rejected the visa applications of all foreign JETS students requesting residency for the 2007-08 academic year.
In October, a human rights fact-finding team organized by Christian Solidarity International and the Religious Freedom Coalition brought up the issue of JETS deportations with Jordan's interior minister, Eid al-Fayez. Al-Fayez denied targeting Christian students.
In a separate interview, representatives from Jordan's General Intelligence Department told the team that no students were deported unless they were illegal residents.
But Jordan has consistently denied visas to JETS foreign students in recent years.
Though recognized by several international accrediting organizations, the seminary has been rebuffed in its attempts to acquire official accreditation under Jordan's Ministry of Higher Education.
JETS eventually registered under the Ministry of Culture in 1995, five years after its inception, but the government continued to regularly deny a number of its foreign students and professors residency. Many have been forced to enter the country on tourist visas and have overstayed the time limit in order to complete their studies.
Upon exiting the country, those who stay past their visa's expiration date face a penalty of 1.5 Jordanian dinar (US$2.10) for each day they have overstayed.
Border police deported another U.S. citizen at the end of October upon his return to Jordan from abroad. The Christian had been working with a local church since 1999 and only earlier that month was his yearly residence permit application rejected for the first time.
His legal stay in Jordan about to expire, he left the country in order to re-enter on a one-month tourist visa that later could be extended for up to three months.
"The [U.S.] embassy thought it was my fault, that it was imprudent of me to leave the country when my residence permit had been denied," the Christian said. "My only other option would have been staying in the country illegally, which I didn't feel comfortable doing."
The U.S. man's wife and four young children were eventually forced to leave Jordan in December, after being informed verbally by intelligence police that they had two weeks to exit the country.
The Christian has not yet received an official explanation for his deportation. But friends who inquired with high government officials through personal connections were given a variety of reasons.
"Most often they were told it was for evangelistic reasons, though once I was accused of pastoring a Mormon church and also of carrying money into Iraq," the Christian said. "You can't defend yourself against this type of thing because everyone that went got a different response, and nothing was ever made public."
A Jordanian official contacted regarding the U.S. citizen's deportation did not respond about the specific incident.
The official said that his government at times refused visas to foreigners because they were carrying out activities other than those stated on their residence permit applications.
"A number of foreign nationals declared residence under different pretexts, such as Arabic language studies, tourism, investment-related or voluntary work," said the official who requested that his name be withheld. "But once having secured their residence permits, [they] proceeded to engage in activity or work not related to their declared reason for residing in the country."
Several pastors expelled in the past year had been staying in Jordan on tourist visas after the government refused their residence permits to work with local churches. The government spokesperson did not specify why the visa applications of foreign pastors had been turned down.
Though foreign Christians have suffered the brunt of government restrictions over the past year, Jordanian pastors fear that locals will be targeted next if the pressure on foreigners is not challenged.
"It's not just the issue of missionaries that I'm worried about, it's about the erosion of our rights as evangelicals," said one pastor, who asked that his name be withheld. "If they get away with this, what will they do next?"
Hotel Meeting Restrictions
Local pastors reported that, as of 2007, the government had placed new restrictions on Christian gatherings in hotels. They said believers now are required to obtain a government security clearance before holding meetings in hotels, but the necessary permission is rarely granted.
"Jordan depends on tourism, it's 20 percent of the country's income," said one pastor, who requested anonymity. "By limiting evangelicals, it's limiting the tourism that comes here.... This is not our image in front of the world. We want Jordan to be known for human rights."
Another Jordanian pastor told Compass that his church now asked visiting foreign preachers to refrain from openly saying they were coming to Jordan to preach. He said his applications on behalf of foreign Christians had been flatly rejected by the intelligence police so often that he felt targeted by the government.
"One concern we have is that this happening to us would make the church even more fearful," one former missionary said. "We would hate to see that happen."
He said that while in Jordan he had avoided overt evangelism, never inviting a non-Christian to his church.
"Whether you are playing it safe on one end or are being radical on the other, the government is going to do what it wants," the Christian said.
Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission BP.