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Diplomatic stand-off over the site of Jesus’ baptism: The Church of England Newspaper, Sept 9, 2011 p 9. September 8, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, Israel.
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Jordan River between the Israeli and Jordanian sites

First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

Israel was guilty of falsifying history and breaking international law, Jordan’s tourism ministry has declared, after it formally re-opened to pilgrims the Qasr al-Yahoud—the traditional site of Christ’s baptism on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Closed following the 1967 Six Day War, the Qasr al-Yahoud is located in a restricted military area in Israel and is directly across from the al-Maghtas (Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan), the site Jordan claims is the true place of Christ’s baptism.

The two sites have long played host to pilgrims, but the closure of Qasr al-Yahoud since 1967 has given the Jordanian site a leg up in the battle for Christian tourist cash.  In March 2010 media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s two daughters were baptized at the al-Maghtas site in a service attended by Jordan’s Queen Rania.

The ceremony sparked controversy last week after Wendy Murdoch told Vogue magazine that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of the children’s godfathers and had participated in the ceremony.  An 18-page photo spread in Hello! magazine of the service pictured film stars Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman as godparents, but omitted mention of the former prime minister.

In 2000 the Qasr al-Yahoud was opened by Israeli to pilgrims who could visit the shrine under military escort.  The outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 2001 closed the shrine, which was only re-opened for religious ceremonies during the Orthodox Epiphany, the Catholic Annunciation and the Orthodox Easter. Last September however, the site was opened to visitors and the area cleared of land mines and barbed wire.

According to a translation made by MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute) of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm, on July 27, 2011, the Jordanian Tourism and Antiquities Minister Dr. Haifa Abu Ghazaleh filed a complaint with the Vatican that Israel had “violated international law and charters by establishing the place called Qasr al-Yahoud and a baptismal site [there], and by holding an [inauguration] ceremony attended by [representatives of] several [Christian] religious streams, in order to provoke Jordan and mislead the world regarding the location of the real baptismal site, which is on Jordanian soil.”

Dr. Abu Ghazaleh added that “grave violation is a provocation [both] to Jordan and to the Vatican, represented by Pope Benedict XVI, which recognizes that the site of Christ’s baptism is on the Jordanian side of the river. It is also a violation of international law because… the [Israeli] site was established on land that the international charters recognize as being under occupation… This is one of an entire series of grave violations of the international laws, charters, and principles, and an attempt to falsify the facts of human history.”

The dispute prompted a meeting between Jordanian officials and Israeli army officers at the midpoint of the King Hussein Bridge that links the two countries, but no accord was reached.

On July 30 the Jordanian interior ministry convened a meeting of government officials, MPs and Christian leaders to defend its claim to possession of the true baptismal site.  The meeting generated a statement which said: “The archeological findings, and all testimony, prove that the [authentic] baptismal site is on the east [bank]. It is important to distinguish the baptism of Christ from the baptism [of other Christians], which can take place anywhere. From a historical and religious perspective, the [real] spot where Christ was baptized is on the east [bank] of the river and is called al-Maghtas, [and is] in Jordan.”

Anglican Archdeacon Luay Haddad told the Khabarjo.net website: “For the Christians, this issue is a very important one, and the reaction should be addressed [to people] both inside and outside [Jordan]. It is not enough to issue a communiqué stating that the site of Christ’s baptism is on the east [bank], because everybody [already] acknowledges this fact. We must inform our brothers west of the river that we remain loyal to the [Jordanian] site…

“The opening of the site on the west [bank] comes at an unsuitable time, and contains an element of provocation. [The authenticity of the Jordanian site] is firmly established in the eyes of the church and from the perspective of archeology, religion and tourism. The church documents clearly confirm this, and it is acknowledged by the church’s supreme authorities… It is also supported by the New Testament and by testimonies of the fathers of the early church.”

The Anglican Church believed the opening of the Israeli site was “a grave mistake in terms of history and religion.”   He called on Christians to “disregard Israel’s plans whose transparent [goal]… is to spark a conflagration and create new confusion in the region.”

“We hope that all the Christians, especially those in the Holy Land, will be wary of these dubious [Israeli] plans, will take a clear stand against this [new baptismal] site, and will announce that the site on the east [bank] is the only [authentic] site of Christ’s baptism.”

However the archdeacon’s claims appear to be stronger than history would allow, as both sides can show ample historic evidence for their claims.  The Vatican Information Service noted that while Pope Benedict XVI visited the al-Maghtas in 2009, he had expressed no opinion on the dispute between the two claimants.

In the sixth century the Emperor Anastasias order a basilica to be built to mark the spot and St John’s Monastery was constructed on the west bank.  The east bank of the river has also yielded Byzantine ecclesial ruins tied to Jesus’ baptism, but the historical record remains unclear.

The sixth-century pilgrim Antoninus of Piacenza (Intinerarium 12.4) reported that “Not very far from the Jordan where the Lord was baptized there is the monastery of St John.”  The actual spot of the baptism was marked by a votive column crowned by a metallic cross, planted in the middle of the river between the two banks.

However, this report is also suspect as The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) notes that Antoninus was “the last writer who saw Palestine before the Moslem conquest. Although he covered in his travels nearly the same extensive territory as the Spanish nun, [Egeria] his work contains but few details not found in other writers; it is, moreover, marred by gross errors and by fabulous tales which betray the most naive credulity.”