The cab was entering the roundabout, I pointed at a nearby spot and signalled the driver to stop there. I clumsily got off the taxi with my camera and bag and he thanked me for the little tip. “Ma’a salama,” I bade farewell to him with my broken Arabic as he began to drive away.
Those were the last words in our short time together.
Those were also probably the last words between us in this life. What’s the chance of us meeting again? A traveller from thousands of miles away, and a taxi driver among the thousands of men of the same trade in Amman.
I started walking to the church to meet Pastor Hanna Massad. It was 2011.
It was our third time to meet, and he’s as courteous as usual. He invited me to enter the church’s guesthouse, and cordially guided me to a seat in a comfortable sofa.
It was after a church service in a Friday evening when we met for the first time, we didn’t have a chance to talk for long as other brothers and sisters were eager to talk to him too. A few days later, he invited me for coffee and we spent some time together. He patiently told me his story, his views and hopes for the seemingly everlasting conflict, as a Christian Arab pastor from the Gaza Strip.
But this time we didn’t meet to talk about Gaza, but Iraq.
I still remember when we’re talking face to face the first time, a man came across to give him a manila envelope. They exchanged a few words in Arabic, the pastor opened the envelope and found some UNHCR documents in it. “Thanks,” he said, and carefully put the documents back into the envelope.
Another man from the congregation stopped by on purpose and greeted the pastor. He’s an old man whose spring of youth had left him a long time ago. I could almost see his gratitude for the pastor in his eyes.
“These are the Iraqi refugees,” Pastor Hanna told me. “Every one of them has a story which you can write a book about.”
I wasn’t fully aware of the weight of that statement back then.
In the days afterwards, I started acquainting myself with the topic. To me, Iraq was about oil; about a crazy man somehow managed to ascend to the rule of the country; about wars – Once as an aggressor and the other time as a defender; about some mysterious weapons of mass destruction that were nowhere to be found; about roadside bombs; about kidnappings…
Little did I understand and realize the extent of the suffering of the ordinary people of Iraq – Those who most often bear the blunt from the decisions made by people sitting in air-conditioned offices.
“It was 2000 when I obtained a PhD in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and there was a crossroad ahead of me – I could stay in the US, or go back to Gaza.” The Pastor said with a claim voice, “So I prayed and asked for God’s guidance. At last, I decided to go back to Gaza to serve.”
He was the pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church before leaving the entangled land in 2007. The Christians in Gaza had been receiving regular death threats from extremists. Suhad, his wife, worked at the Bible Society and once there was a bomb exploding in front of the office, which damaged the building and shattered the windows.
“Thank God she wasn’t hurt.”
The last straw came when the threat finally materialized – Brother Rami of the Christian bookstore was kidnapped and executed. Upon the government’s urge, his family left the Strip and settled in Jordan, where he began to teach at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary.
In 2010, the former pastor of the Amman’s Alliance Church emigrated to Canada, and he took over the responsibility of ministering the Iraqi refugees.
The exodus started since the Gulf War. In the beginning, the people who left Iraq were usually the richer ones who sought a safer place to live. The safety problem was made worse by the Iraq War, and the people who left in recent years often came with little or no property at all. After all, most of us probably aren’t keen on leaving our homes for an unfamiliar place faraway, even more so when one knows that he won’t be able to make a living there. However, when physical violence and kidnappings become the usual, and threats become deaths, what can one do?
“When they arrive, most of them have very little possessions. And they’re not allowed to work here, unless they pay a huge sum to obtain a business visa.”
The Jordanian government does not consider most of these Iraqis “refugees” but “visitors”, who’re supposed to go back to their home country soon.
It’s hard to blame the Hashmites though. The number of Iraqi refugees had once become so big that they consisted about a tenth of the Jordanian population, and the desert country had already accommodated two waves of refugees from Palestine in the past 60 years.
Syria was another major receiver of the Iraqi refugees, until the muddy civil war turned her into a breeding ground for even more refugees. But even before that, the life of the Iraqi refugees there wasn’t by any means better. It has been claimed that as many as 50,000 Iraqi women and girls have been forced into prostitution to make a living.
As the war in Syria gathered stream, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan soon outnumbered that of the Iraqi. Naturally, Pastor Hanna’s ministry began serving them as well.
“Our ministry is focused on three tasks – First, to bring the refugees here. Second, to share the gospel with them and provide discipleship. Third, send them out with the precious gift of the gospel with them. Indeed, a few of them has already planted churches in their new host countries.”
Besides providing spiritual support and guidance, the ministry, which was started 30 years ago, also supports them materially – Coupons for purchasing basic necessities are dispersed to each family a few times per year. They can also obtain free medicine at clinics operated by the church, and English courses are available for a nominal fee.
It’s easy to become numb and indifferent when you keep hearing about the refugees’ personal stories, one after another. It seems that almost every one of them has received death threats, was kidnapped, or has experienced life threatening attacks at least once. They are the fortunate ones – In many cases their family members and friends had already perished, and never had the chance anymore to tell others about it.
Or maybe they’re actually the unfortunate ones? Being alive and forced to carry with them their traumas into a pale future.
During one of my visits, an enthusiastic young man welcomed me, told me about the congregation, showed me the “Jesus Christ” tattoo on his arm, and tried his best to translate the Arabic service into English for me.
His enthusiasm was abruptly quenched when I asked him why he left Iraq, his big smile disappeared and his head sank – There was a bomb exploding outside the church, and then some. His eyes strayed as if there was a fathomless abyss ahead of him.
The story of a man particularly struck with me – He was the driver for a priest, and almost always travelled with him. One day, the priest had another errand for him, the vehicle was attacked on that particular day. The priest and the people accompanying him were killed, but the driver’s life was spared.
And they surely won’t get to talk to each other again in this life.
How can one maintain his sanity, let alone preach the gospel, among these people?
“I think we’re somehow connected because we both went through the fire of persecution.”
Still, Gaza remains an important part of the pastor’s ministry. He started the Christian Mission to Gaza in 2009 which, besides providing humanitarian support to the Gazans, strive to encourage and support the dwindling but resilient Christian community there.
“I go back there 3 times a year to serve in the church, to do relief work, and to teach in home bible studies.”
As those who’re familiar with the situations in Gaza can imagine, it’s not easy spiritually, physically, and financially. But God’s grace is always sufficient.
In 2018, Pastor Hanna published an autobiography, his own book – Pastor from Gaza to critical acclaims.
To many people, it seems only human that someone like him will forgo any compassion for the people who ultimately caused the suffering of him and his people, isn’t it?
“I’ve learnt to forgive the Israelis, because I’m also forgiven by God,” Pastor Hanna told me, “Still, I keep in the safe the deeds to prove the ownership of my family’s land, which they took. And I’m hoping that they will compensate for the loss of us someday.”
Article in Chinese on Chinese Christians for Peace in the Holy Land