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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

On Jordan’s Bank

The Hashemites lead in preserving Christianity’s holiest sites

In a rustic wooden structure perched on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, Father Gianluigi Corti leads a group of Italian pilgrims in renewing their baptismal vows. The river is now little more than a muddy stream, drained over the years to meet the demands of the growing populations of the Holy Land. The air is still, apart from the singing of Italian hymns and a chorus of chirping insects. The latter is a constant sound in this dry, hot region of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan known as the Valley of Trickling Water, or Wadi el Kharrar in Arabic.

As Father Corti concludes the simple renewal service, he dips a plastic bottle into a heavy stone basin filled with water from the river and slowly pours its contents on the heads of the pilgrims. As a parish priest, he has led many such tours to the Holy Land.

“The Bible was not lived in Europe,” he says. “If you don’t know the land of the Bible directly, you cannot know what the Bible is.”

A short walk from the pilgrims lie the remains of an early Christian church.

Uncovered in the late 1990’s by a team of archaeologists led by Dr. Muhammad Waheeb, the ruins belong to a complex built at the end of the fifth century. They mark the site where early Christians believed Jesus was baptized — the same complex described in pilgrims’ accounts from the fifth to seventh centuries.

Above the brush, not far from the river’s edge, rises the golden dome of a new church built on land donated by the Jordanian royal family. Dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the Orthodox shrine is the most prominent monument in an area long believed to be the biblical Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John lived, preached and baptized his cousin, Jesus. It also stands as a reminder of the Hashemites — Jordan’s royals who descend from the prophet Muhammad — and their personal commitment to develop the kingdom’s holy places, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

Jordan is home to a mosaic of biblical places. For example, near the Zerqa River, Jacob wrestled the angel and received the name Israel. At Mount Nebo, Moses looked upon the Promised Land. The Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire from the Jordan River’s eastern bank, which also later served as the center of John the Baptist’s ministry.

These holy places, coupled with the country’s arid landscape, drew thousands of early Christians, such as St. Mary of Egypt, who led lives of penitence and prayer. Their monastic cells, caves, chapels and tombs in turn became important venues of pilgrimage for generations of Christians, who traveled along a well–beaten circuit from one site to the next for much of the first millennia of the Christian era.

Today, these sacred areas draw considerable numbers of pilgrims and tourists each year, but less traffic than one might expect. Most of the locations receive scant publicity and are overshadowed by better–known holy sites in Israel and Palestine. And, until recently, some of the most important sites in Jordan have been long lost or neglected.

For nearly 50 years, Wadi el Kharrar served as a highly militarized border zone — littered with land mines — between the Israeli–occupied Palestinian West Bank and Jordan. Only after Israel and the kingdom entered into a peace treaty in 1994 did the Jordanian authorities de–militarize, de–mine and open up the area to experts. Then in 1997, Dr. Waheeb’s team of archaeologists conducted a survey of the site. Recognizing the religious importance of the valley, the Hashemite royal family soon launched an ambitious plan to develop it as a major destination for pilgrims. Unlike other religious sites, however, they decided to preserve the Wadi el Kharrar as a naturalist park rimmed with modern churches and pilgrimage facilities. The plans to restore the baptismal site belong to the royals’ larger goals of preserving Jordan’s rich religious patrimony and making it a destination of choice for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The Baptism Site Commission, a nonprofit organization headed by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, currently manages the area. That a member of the Hashemite family is responsible for the Christian holy site should come as no surprise. Since the kingdom’s establishment in the 20th century, the Hashemites have enforced a strict policy of religious tolerance. Jordan’s constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, providing for the rights of Christians in particular to build churches and participate in civic life, including the governance of the nation.

Since Al Qaeda’s attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., Madrid and London, the Hashemites have responded to the rise of Islamic extremism by leading efforts to promote interreligious understanding. In 2004, King Abdullah II brought together some of the world’s foremost Islamic scholars to draft the “Amman Message,” a powerful statement calling for peace and unity in the Muslim world and the rejection of violence in the name of Islam. In 2007, Prince Ghazi convened another group of Islamic scholars to affirm shared Christian and Muslim principles. The resulting document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” subsequently served as the basis for a number of interfaith efforts, including an annual international interfaith harmony week, adopted by the United Nations last October.

The Hashemite family also supports local and international activities promoting peace and interreligious understanding, particularly through the Royal Aal al–Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. Chaired by Prince Ghazi, the institute hosts interfaith conferences, assists the work of other interfaith organizations and honors religious leaders who champion peace and tolerance. During his 2009 visit to Jordan, Pope Benedict XVI offered his gratitude to the royal family for its many efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

“We’re very lucky here in Jordan to be part of these initiatives, which are very important,” says Melkite Greek Catholic Father Nabil Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, a nongovernmental organization that promotes interfaith harmony through conferences, workshops and local activities.

“Our society in Jordan has been changed by the fact that there is a legacy of moderation, but at the same time the Hashemites have always respected the Christian faith,” he continues. “Looking around me, I see a good model for coexistence of Muslims and Christians.”

For the Hashemites — and all Jordanians — the rediscovery and development of Bethany Beyond the Jordan offers an example of the nation’s longstanding commitment to peace and interreligious coexistence, as well as a potentially lucrative economic venture that would strengthen cooperation. When Christian pilgrims visit the baptismal site, they experience a Muslim country committed to peace and values, one that respects believers of all faiths. Sites such as Bethany draw ordinary, devout believers who come away both spiritually renewed and hopefully better informed about and more tolerant of their Muslim hosts.

“I don’t think most people are interested in interfaith dialogue on the level of the theologians,” explains Father Haddad. “They’re interested in seeing their faith being practiced every day.”

Though opened to the public in 2002, the park that includes Bethany Beyond the Jordan remains under construction. The Baptism Site Commission oversees all new developments in and around the park to ensure that its natural environment and its sanctity are preserved. According to Rustom Mkhjian, the commission’s assistant director, the ultimate goal is to restore the area as a place for spiritual contemplation.

“We concentrate first on one issue, and that is not to destroy the wilderness of John the Baptist; to present the site as John and Jesus saw it,” adds Mr. Mkhjian. “Many religious and biblical sites have turned into touristic sites; that’s what we don’t want.”

As part of its commitment to restoration and conservation, the commission requires that all modern structures be at least 220 yards from the remains of the ancient churches. Most recently, the commission has acquired a neighboring plot of land, on which it intends to work with local developers to build a pilgrims’ village. Plans include a handful of simple, affordable hotels, in contrast to luxury resorts such as those nearby on the Dead Sea.

The first contemporary church in the park was built by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the preeminent church of the Holy Land. Currently, three other churches are under construction, including a $15 million Roman Catholic church the pope blessed during his visit to the Holy Land in 2009. In the coming years, the commission anticipates a total of 11 churches. Nearly finished are a Russian Orthodox pilgrimage house and a Greek Orthodox monastery. And the park’s newly completed conference center has already hosted its first event, a round table discussion between Christian and Muslim theologians organized by the Aal al–Bayt Institute and the Eugen Biser Foundation.

The commission also envisions offering guided tours and plans to keep the park open through the night, allowing pilgrims lodging on its grounds to visit ancient sites as they please, attend midnight prayer services and walk the same footpaths taken by saints and prophets.

Though Jordan has always attracted pilgrims and tourists, it has never attracted the millions who travel through neighboring Israel, Palestine and Egypt. But in recent years, Jordan has experienced growth in its tourism industry.

“The trend has changed, nicely, in the past few years, with Jordan being on the map,” says Hanna Sawalha, owner of Nebo Tours, a local tour company.

“People are coming back to do their pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” Mr. Sawalha says, stressing that they want to spend time in Jordan.

Mr. Sawalha, as do others connected to Jordan’s growing religious tourism industry, recognizes that holy sites are but one — albeit central — facet of the business.

“Jordan, when you sell it, you’re selling a country,” he explains. And with such a variety of attractions and experiences, from biblical sites to posh resorts, Jordan is not a hard sell.

“Petra was splendid,” says Angela Fraschini, one of the pilgrims with Father Corti. The group arrived at the baptismal park in the afternoon after spending a morning at a spa on the shores of the Dead Sea. The previous day, the pilgrims visited Petra, the ancient Nabatean city that offers some of the region’s most spectacular views and monuments, before spending the night in Amman, the kingdom’s capital.

A professor of economics at the University of Eastern Piedmont, in Alessandria, Italy, Ms. Fraschini says her diocese makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land every year, and she goes whenever she can. On previous trips, which have all mixed leisure and sightseeing with faith, she has visited holy sites in Israel, Palestine, Syria and Turkey.

Many tourists visit Jordan on all–inclusive package tours — anywhere from 600,000 to 700,000 a year, says Mr. Sawalha. However, most of these tours rush through Jordan, stopping at only a couple major attractions before moving on to Israel or Egypt.

Typically, groups visit Mount Nebo and Petra and little else. Some longer tours include the ancient cities of the Decapolis, such as Jerash and Umm Qais, which boast both biblical significance and magnificent archaeological ruins.

“Now the Baptism site is slowly being added,” says Mr. Sawalha. “Next year, almost everyone who’s coming has added it, because the pope’s visit really cemented the fact that this is the baptism site.”

Time and money, explains Fadi Abu Jaber, director of the religious tours division of Hashweh Corporation, a large Jordanian travel agency, shorten most pilgrims’ stays in Jordan. “When people are coming a long way, it isn’t feasible to see just one country,” he says. Few pilgrims from overseas, he believes, are willing to visit the Holy Land without spending time in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, where Jesus was born, lived and died.

Both Mr. Sawalha and Mr. Abu Jaber say they would like to see visitors spend more time in Jordan and visit more of its diverse attractions.

Sa’ed Zawaideh, who heads the religious tourism department of the Jordan Tourism Board, explains that marketing Jordan is a challenge largely because the Israeli tourism industry for years successfully promoted Israel as the Holy Land. While he stresses that Jordan’s tourism industry does not seek to compete with its neighbor, he does hope to convince potential visitors that a visit to the kingdom completes their experience of the Holy Land.

Kevin Wright, president of the World Religious Tourism Association, explains that while “faith tourism,” as he calls it, is a growing market, it is also an evolving and changing one. In particular, pilgrims today are often looking for travel experiences that combine spirituality with more traditional sightseeing. Many want to interact with local communities in the places they visit or make a contribution through volunteer work.

“The more experiences travelers can have, from leisure to religious,” says Mr. Wright, “the longer they’re going to stay in that destination.”

Yet no matter how much religious tourism changes, today’s pilgrim differs little from the pilgrim of yesteryear. Both share a desire for a special spiritual experience, one born out of closeness to the origins of his or her faith.

“I’m Catholic, I practice, and I want to know where my Lord was born and lived,” says Ms. Fraschini.

“When you see this landscape and its sites, and then you read the Bible, you really see these places. When I am back at home and during Mass, the priest reads about the baptism of Jesus, in my mind I will see the place.”

Perhaps Jordan’s most proven marketing strategy, one that neither Israel, Palestine nor Egypt can emulate is the Hashemite family.

“The king and the queen are the most important ambassadors we have,” says Mr. Sawalha. “When Her Majesty [Queen Rania] goes to Spain, or goes to the United Kingdom or France, she’s in the media. The same is true when His Majesty [King Abdullah] goes. Immediately, there’s interest that follows them.”

Whenever they visit another country, Mr. Sawalha explains, people from that country instantly query Jordan on the internet, which leads to hits on the Nebo Tours web site.

“We have bookings coming out of that. It’s incredible.”

Contributor Nicholas Seeley reports for ONE.

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