The Peacebuilding Prince
Prince Hassan bin Talal, brother of the late King Hussein of Jordan, is worried about the future of Christians all over the Arab world, including the Holy Landthe name he gives to the combined area of Israel, the Palestinian region, and his homeland of Jordan. The prince holds two degrees from Oxford University and is renowned worldwide for his views on the relationship of religion and society. He often talks about religion in cultural rather than theological terms, approaching religious issues fundamentally from the viewpoint of the secular state's compelling intereststhe reduction of unhealthy political disputes, terrorism, and religious wars.
The prince has been working to ensure that those of disparate religions in the Middle East can learn to live with one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect. He doesn't want any religious groups to disappear, because he feels they all have something to offer society. Most importantly, he has devoted himself to bolstering the Christian community, one of the most threatened religious bodies in the region, especially in Muslim-majority nations.
Jordan receives good marks for its protection of religious freedom. Jordanian Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox believers, are active at all levels of society and some serve in Jordanian Parliament. Cornelis Hulsman, editor of the Arab-West Report and based in Cairo, interviewed Prince Hassan, a welcome friend of the Christian community in the Middle East, during the prince's recent visit to Egypt.
You have been interested in Arab Christianity for many years. How did your interest develop?
In the 1960s, I studied Hebrew and the history of our region at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. That gave me an introduction to biblical studies. Scholarship is essential for developing understanding between the Christian churches. We have over 14 Christian traditions represented in the Holy Land. Learning more about each other while respecting differences promotes pluralism and unity.
Why did you create the Royal Jordanian Institute for Interfaith Studies?
The stereotype of the Arab, particularly since the tragedy of 9/11, is that he is Muslim, which then equals Islamist, which then possibly equals militant or terrorist. This is the media stereotype.
Also, to this day, unfortunately, it is difficult to remind the world that Christianity was born in biblical lands. There is growing pressure and funding from new churches to bring their views on Christianity into the region, corresponding with a puritanical Islamist attempt to proselytize and convert.
I believe in conversation and not in conversion. The study of Christianity or Islam is not just about the ecclesiastical context particular to every faith group. We used to talk with a definite article about "the" monotheistic faiths. Today, I show my respect of the other by talking about monotheistic faiths in the context of a broader partnership for humanity, involving Christians, Muslims, Jews, and nonbelievers for that matter. When you talk about ethics and morality, each faith group has difficulty with the semantics.
I was very concerned about the accuracy of my book, Christianity in the Arab World, and so I consulted leaders from 14 churches. The Maronite church, for example, was the custodian of an Arab identity and the Arabic language. The Maronite church still is, in my opinion. I would love to see cantors from the Aramaic and Syriac communities popularize their aesthetic and spiritual revival in the same way the Gregorian cantors have done.