I was excited to have the opportunity recently to sit down for an interview with Father Nabil Haddad, a priest in the Melkite Catholic Church and founder and executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC) – an NGO based in Amman, Jordan. Haddad is well-known both in Jordan and internationally for the pioneering work he has done in interfaith relations, primarily between Muslim and Christian groups in the Middle East.
Read more below for his thoughts on JICRC and on religion as a tool for human rights.
This interview was originally posted on my blog at PracticingVicariously.com. Due to length considerations, I have highlighted the two questions I thought would be most interesting to SoF readers.
Chelsea Scudder: First, would you talk a bit about JICRC?
Fr. Nabil:The idea was birthed a long time ago. We were thinking of institutionalizing what we call the “model of coexistence in Jordan.” That’s one thing. The other thing – as an Arab Christian – I always thought that we have a responsibility as witnesses of our Lord Jesus Christ. We live in a predominantly Muslim society; we always need to reflect on “what Christianity is for me” and, at the same time, present Christianity properly to the Muslim community. One good thing about being an Arab is that you understand the mentality and you understand Islam because Islam was revealed in Arabic. All of this helps Arab Christians to be an integral part within the community and within a Muslim society.
But it became very evident that it was necessary to start such an initiative after 9/11. I saw that Islam was being hijacked by its own people; we saw that there was a problem in reaching out to the world. And, being an Arab Christian, the Arab-Islamic culture is my culture, so it was really important that we come up with something. It was a group of us – Muslim and Christian leaders – that came together and we thought that it was about time. JICRC was birthed in the shape of a non-governmental organization – non-ecclesiastical, non-sharia – and non-governmental, but definitely it is based on the common values that we have. I have always thought that, for Arab Christians, it is very important – and it makes me very comfortable – to see the good Muslim practicing his Islam which teaches him to respect the People of the Book. So, out of what I call religious selfishness, I want to promote what I call the model approach of the religiosity of Islam. At the end of the day this represents an ideal relationship between Muslims and Christians.
We came together, we launched this NGO, and it was decided then that the best place to do it was in the premises of this church […] which is in the vicinity of the 6th century cathedral across the street, in the old city of Philadelphia. And here we are. Many people, when they come here […] they are surprised that they are in this beautiful setting in the old city of Amman. The place reflects the tolerance and the mutual respect between Muslims and Christians. I see Muslims working in the premises and the offices here. They are very comfortable to do this and, at the same time, it shows others that this is really a good model. So this was the inception of JICRC.
CS: Why do you feel that religion is an effective tool for human rights?
Fr. Nabil: In 2000, I received a phone call from the [Jordanian] Prime Minister who told me that I was selected by His Majesty to be a member of the Royal Commission for Human Rights. And I was so proud to be chosen for that. And I think that it opened my eyes to the issue of human rights. It opened my eyes on religion from a human rights point of view. And, digging into Christianity, I thought that the Bible and the teachings of Christianity gave more respect, more dignity to the human being – more by far than the International Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. And talking about the right for someone to be respected, Christianity made it more of a commandment, not only to respect, but also to love, and that means that you are given the Other – the Other who is your neighbor. In human rights it’s considered that there is a separation between you and this Other; he’s an alien. In Christianity, he is more related to you. So this has really opened my eyes and my heart to the teachings of Christianity – as it gives so much dignity to the human being. […] I don’t think a person driven by his conscious, by his goodwill, by his faith, could fail in maintaining this kind of respect for the Other; for the human being.
That’s why I thought that religion could be very influential on our attitude, on our conduct, on our relationships with each other. And at the same time, the teachings, the values, the ideals that are inherent within the religion could be a prime mover in maintaining that respect for the human being. I think that religious freedom is the crown of human rights. So when we talk about religious freedom, we are talking about such a crown in a list of freedoms and liberties. I think I could not talk about practicing my own freedom of religion, of faith, of conscience, if I were not driven by my religion that teaches me to respect the freedom of others in choosing their own faith.
Being a Christian – an Arab Christian – in the Middle East, I always saw how influential religion and Islam is on society. […] I think religion can always be that force, that driving force, which motivates people – that’s one thing. The other thing is that people will feel more comfortable with being driven by their own faith to practice a certain affective attitude, [rather] than being told, let’s say, by law or by force. It gives the human person, I think, that kind of self-respect that – based on his or her relationship with God – that will reflect on […] that other dimension of the relationships that the human being has with God, with the Other, and with her- or himself. So these are the three dimensions that are all connected and correlated. A person can be pro-human rights by default when he or she is a person – a man, a woman – of faith. I don’t think any faith would fail the faithful when it comes, especially, to human rights.
CS: Thank you so much for your time!
Fr. Nabil: Thank you.