Faith

The East Bank makes bid for baptismal tourism

By DALE HANSON BOURKE

Religion News Service

A Ukrainian woman takes part in a baptism ceremony at the Jordan River in Jordan. Some pilgrims believe it is the site of Jesus’ baptism; others say it’s in Israel.
A Ukrainian woman takes part in a baptism ceremony at the Jordan River in Jordan. Some pilgrims believe it is the site of Jesus’ baptism; others say it’s in Israel. The Associated Press

Thousands of believers every year make pilgrimages to the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus.

For many Christians, the baptism site is the third-holiest site of Christianity, joining Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where he is believed to have been buried.

And many may be going to the wrong place.

While Israel has long claimed that Jesus was baptized on the Israeli side of the river, increasingly scholars are lining up to support archaeological research showing the baptism site is actually in Jordan.

When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last spring, he made a point of holding Mass at the Jordanian baptism site, lending additional credibility to the claim.

Called “Bethany beyond the Jordan” in the Bible, scholars point to both textual and archaeological evidence that the site is on the east bank of the river.

The baptism site itself combines a carefully controlled archaeological dig surrounded by the construction of a dozen new churches and guesthouses, including a 32,000-square-foot Roman Catholic church and center.

Last year on Epiphany, thousands of pilgrims from dozens of countries gathered for Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican worship services at various churches in the area.

Cleared of mines after the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, the area is carefully protected by the Jordanian government to preserve numerous archaeological treasures being unearthed daily.

One excavation revealed remnants of a third-century church with a cruciform baptismal structure where early pilgrims came to be baptized. Carved into the stone are thousands of small crosses, signs early Christians would leave after being baptized. Another dig has unearthed what is believed to be the cave where John the Baptist lived.

Jordan, a Muslim-majority country, uses the slogan: “Jordan, the birthplace of Christianity,” hoping to draw more Christian tourists to places like Mount Nebo, Madaba, Petra, and other sites mentioned in the Bible.

On the Jordanian bank, visitors have a clear view of pilgrims being baptized on the Israeli site, just a few yards across the muddy river. Israeli and Jordanian soldiers stand guard on either side, while tourists sing hymns and step into the river.

The main Jordanian baptism site is a few yards downstream, with better access for those who want to be immersed in the waters. An ancient baptismal font has been restored for those who prefer sprinkled or poured baptisms.

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