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Jordan's Hills Come Alive With the Sound of Christian Music

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The hills of Ajloun came alive this summer with the sound of the internationally renown Christian singer Lydia Shadid.

Instead of their regular conference program, music was the main focus of the annual Amman Baptist Church's summer conference this year. Shadid, a Syrian-Lebanese singer who now lives in Texas, mesmerized the 100 strong congregants with a mix of old and new gospel songs. Accompanied by Jordan's leading pianist, Salam Omeish, Shadid's strong voice featured popular songs (most written by Egyptian writers), as well as songs written and composed by local Jordanian and other Middle Eastern hymn writers.

The Ajloun Baptist Conference center, north west of Amman, was established in the early 1950s as a nursing school for the nearby Baptist Hospital and has since been converted to a conference retreat center for evangelical Christians of Jordan. Under the leadership of its new director Eman Oweis Haddad, the center is hoping to make some major renovations to its infrastructure.

On the conferences' third day, July 9, Lydia Shadid's highlight with the local attendees was when she sang Fil Hazi'al Rabi' ("In The Fourth Watch"), a powerful hymn produced as part of an Easter concert a few years ago. The hymn was written by a local writer, Suheil Madanat. Madanat, who had recently returned from the U.S. after getting two MA degrees in apologetics and theology from Biola University, has been asked to serve as pastor of the Amman Baptist Churches in place of the church's founding pastor Fawaz Omeish. A trained civil engineer, Suheil Madanat, has refused to be a pastor in the traditional sense and has introduced concepts of collective leadership and service to all church goers.

While humility might be popular among local parishioners, it does little to advance the attempts of Jordanian evangelicals to get official recognition. The Baptist Church and other evangelicals still lack the kind of official recognition that historic churches have with the local authorities.

It is estimated that more than 6,000 Jordanians are members of one of five evangelical churches. Evangelicals own and run dozens of schools, hospitals and other relief organizations. The five evangelical churches in Jordan are Baptists, Christian Alliance, Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church and Assemblies of God. The leaders of these five churches have formed a 15-person synod with the hope that the Jordanian government recognizes them and allow this Evangelical synod to create special courts.

Since all personal status issues are dealt by religious courts for all Jordanian citizens, Christian courts are necessary for any Christian wanting to marry, divorce, adopt or have a recognized inheritance agreement. Evangelical Christians at present often have to use fellow Anglican or Lutheran courts to resolve any personal status issues.

The Amman Baptist Church, one of the oldest evangelical churches in Jordan, faced a difficult problem this June. A fabricated rumor spread on social media claimed that the church had burnt copies of the Quran. Soon thereafter a group calling for the destruction of the church on a particular day began to spread on Facebook based on this fabricated story. Jordanian security officials who were notified quickly provided marked and unmarked security protection to the church. After a few tense days, calls to Facebook to remove the inciting page produced results and the group that had gathered a few hundred fans was removed. No incident took place on the stated date much to the relief of members of the church who choose to keep the entire story out of the public eye.

Talking to Lydia Shadid in Ajloun, one gets an impression of a dedicated singer whose presence and voice is heard around the world. In addition to her physical presence in the Middle East, Australia and the U.S., she is a regular on many Arabic-speaking Christian satellite stations. CDs, both legal and pirated, abound in large numbers in many communities.

This popularity, however seems to be a two-edged sword. While Shadid is grateful for her followers and supporters throughout the world, she said that she is unhappy with the way some have tried to take advantage of successful Christian musicians.

"Christian writers, composers, singers and producers are not protected," she said.

Intellectual property laws are rarely applied in Christian Arab circles as some organizers and entrepreneurs freely copy their work without paying any attention to the producers or the creative talent. Christian singers often find themselves in a bind, not wanting to cause any obstacles to the distribution of their works while at the same time feel that some order must be introduced in this important field. Shadid said that by pirating her works, these entrepreneurs are denying her the right to distribute profits to the needy. Shadid said that she supports 11 needy families in Egypt as well as prison missions from the profits of her works.

"When people fail to honor copyright rules they are denying me the chance to support these needy individuals and missions," she said.

Before coming to Jordan, Shadid sang to a group of 500 Arab Americans in Boston. And after her singing in the Ajloun conference, Shadid sang in the West Amman Baptist Church Sunday night and shared in the evening meetings of Jordanian businessmen (held weekly on Monday nights) before returning to her home in Texas. Living in two worlds might seem difficult for many, but for Shadid it has become part of her regular life.

Daoud Kuttab is the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter.

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