Police are seeking vandals who broke into a cemetery church in Zarqa during the weekend, in a rare act against Christian places of worship in Jordan.
The vandals broke a statue of the Virgin Mary on Friday, January 6, before fleeing the scene.
A security official speculated that under-aged youths were probably responsible. "We cannot call it an attack … they shoved the statue and broke it, but a probe is under way," he said.
Jordan prides itself on its religious tolerance and attacks and acts of vandalism against churches are uncommon, although there were incidents of hate speech against Christians and others on social media last year.
"Those who carried out the act do not appear to have a criminal motive, nor did they want to terrorise people since the church was empty and it is not frequented daily by worshippers except during funerals," said Fr. Rifat Bader, director of the Catholic Centre for Studies and Media in Jordan. "But it is the first time they break into a church like this and target religious symbols. What happened was unfortunate but we look to the future and such acts cannot undermine our national unity, which we are proud of."
Authorities tightened security around the country, including at churches, after a terrorist attack claimed by ISIL last month that killed at least 10 people — seven security officers, two civilians and a Canadian tourist. Analysts say the fact that ISIL carried out that attack in Karak is seen as a sign of how the violence in Syria and Iraq has spilled over the border with terrorist groups attempting to undermine the country’s security.
Jordanian Christians make up less than two per cent of the population, and for the most part they live in harmony with Muslims. They cancelled Christmas celebrations after the Karak attack, including lighting up a huge Christmas tree in Fuheis, a predominately Christian town near Amman.
Fr. Bader said there were two incidents of violence last year involving churches, but they were not deliberately targeted. One occurred in Zarqa after an argument between a street vendor and a passer-by who then took refuge in a nearby church. The vendor brought his friends and they pelted the church with stones.
The other incident took place during the parliamentary elections in September, when a fire broke out at a church square in a village near Karak following a dispute between supporters of rival candidates.
In June 2015, a man stormed into the Greek Orthodox Church in the city of Madaba, south-west of Amman with a stick and smashed a wooden cross at the altar. Witnesses said he called Christians infidels and claimed it the shedding of their blood was sanctioned. A church employee who tried to stop the attacker from vandalising the church sustained slight injuries.
The government is concerned about the rise of hate speech and is considering a law to regulate social media in an attempt to prevent civil discord. On Thursday, 12 people were detained for allegedly inciting hatred by slandering the victims of the New Year attack in Istanbul in comments posted online. Two Jordanians were among the 39 people killed, and six others were injured.
There was also hate speech against Christians on social media after the murder in September of Nahed Hattar, a secular writer from a Christian family who had re-posted a cartoon lampooning how extremists view the afterlife. The killer was sentenced to death last month. His lawyer said he was not targeting Christians but was provoked by the cartoon.
Last summer Jordan’s grand mufti issued a fatwa permitting Muslims to offer or accept condolences from non-Muslims after the death of a 17- year-old Jordanian Christian in a car accident prompted calls on social media for Muslims not to offer their sympathies to his grieving family. On its Facebook page, a group called Ahel Al Sunna and Jama’a in Jordan said it was not permissible to extend Christmas greetings to Christians.
Nevertheless, Fr. Bader said the vandalism at the church in Zarqa remained a "strange and rare act".
"There is national unity and mutual respect, especially when it comes to churches and mosques."