At first glance, there is nothing surprising about the recent visit by a small group of Druze spiritual leaders to the tiny, crooked house of Mohana Abu Zen el-Din and his extended family just outside the Jordanian capital, Amman.
The family — two brothers, their wives, children and grandchildren — are Syrian Druze refugees who fled the ongoing violence in their country two years ago. They have been unable to support themselves in Jordan, and the religious men have come to hear about their plight, sip sweet tea with them and offer some financial aid.
But one of the sympathetic visitors stands out. Accompanying the three Druze sheiks, in their cylindrical red and white hats and baggy pants, is a man in a buttoned-down blue shirt and a skullcap — a rabbi from Jerusalem.
The scene — Syrians sitting face-to-face over tea with a patriotic Israeli religious leader — would have been unimaginable a few years ago. But in the rapidly changing Middle East, some of the barriers that once stood between enemies are crumbling. And in their place, some unusual relationships are forming.
The American-born rabbi, Yechiel Z. Eckstein, heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that supports an array of social welfare programs in Israel. The fellowship receives some $140 million a year in donations — most of them anonymous gifts of $10 or less — from evangelical Christians in the United States.
The Druze visitors, too, are Israeli nationals. They speak Hebrew and Arabic fluently, and in recent months they have become increasingly concerned about the plight of their Druze brethren across the border in Syria.
They also agreed to accept help from the rabbi and his Christian donors.
Followers of an esoteric, monotheistic religion that incorporates elements of the Abrahamic religions and several other philosophies, the Druze constitute a minority scattered around northern Israel, Lebanon and Syria, with a smaller number in Jordan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. According to their belief system, the Druze must be loyal to the state in which they live, but they have still managed to stay connected with one another even across hostile borders.
As the war rages on in Syria, the 700,000 Druze there have found themselves in a precarious situation. Many once supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but some have now lost trust in his regime. At the same time, they face widening threats from militant Islamist groups such as the Islamic State, which excoriates the Druze’s religious beliefs, and the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, which holds territory in Suwayda province, where many Druze live. In June, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters clashed with Druze in a village there, killing more than 20 people.
Around the region, Druze are beginning to worry that their Syrian brethren could suffer the same fate as other minority religious groups such as the Yazidis in Iraq, who last summer were forced out of their villages by Islamic State fighters and saw many of their men killed and women raped.
“It’s a very worrying situation,” said Sheik Moafaq Tarif, the top spiritual leader of Israel’s 170,000 Druze, who was among those visiting the refugees in Jordan in late July.
Tarif has galvanized support among his community, raising more than $3 million to provide aid to Syrian Druze around the region. He also asked Eckstein, who gave an additional $150,000, to help establish infrastructure in Jordan to distribute food vouchers and possibly bring some of those injured in the Syrian conflict to Israel for treatment.
“Most of the Druze have stayed in Syria. They prefer to be killed protecting their land and their homes than to run away,” Tarif said. For now, though, the aid collected by Eckstein will go only to those who have escaped to Jordan, mainly because it’s almost impossible to get it into Syria.
The Syrian Druze see Tarif as well-placed to help them. As a loyal citizen of Israel, they say, he has the backing of one of the region’s strongest militaries. Israeli Druze serve in the army, and Israelis have made their support of the community clear. Tarif also has access to and the respect of Druze communal leaders in Lebanon and Syria.
“He is in contact with everyone and has good relations with everyone,” said Najib Abu Faher, a Syrian Druze activist now living in Turkey. A staunch critic of the Assad regime, Faher works to unite minority groups in Syria and has been trying to help the Druze who are still there to defend themselves militarily.
“Israel is strong and influential in the world, and the sheik has influence in Israel,” he said.
For Eckstein, who has already weathered controversy in some Jewish circles over the fundraising he does with Christians, supporting Syrian Druze is a logical outreach of his work in Israel.
“The Druze in Israel have been loyal to the country, and there is a biblical dimension that connects them to the Jews, too,” the rabbi said. “I asked the community in Israel what help they needed, and they told me that this was their most pressing issue.”
Sitting with the refugees in Zarqa, Eckstein asks casually if this is the first time they have met a Jew or an Israeli and whether they are surprised that a Jew has come to help them.
“I’ve never met a Jew before, but I’m not surprised that Jews, Israelis or Druze from Israel came here to help because I know that there are good people all over the world,” said Hanan Abu Zen el-Din, Mohana’s 22-year-old niece.
“Not all people have hard hearts,” her uncle said. “There are others with good hearts, too, not only the Druze.”