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Jordan: Sacred site falling victim to spiritual one-upmanship

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How typical of 21st century life that one celebrity visit can highlight problems ordinary people have been battling away at - apparently unheeded - for years?

The depleted and polluted state of the River Jordan, as is evident as Bethany Beyond the Jordan, is in the headlines after this week's visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

How ironic it would be if the river was to receive some attention (and thus benefit the mostly Muslim population on the Jordanian side, as well as those on the Israeli side) after a visit by a pope who last year criticised the nature of Islam?

When I was there just a few weeks ago it was, however, the building boom around the site that caught my attention.

On a parched terrace above a muddy curl of the Jordan River construction cranes reared up above the scrubby landscape, while beneath them stone walls are starting to rise skywards.

To anyone unaware of the religious significance of this site it would seem a strange place to build - especially as the construction is taking place within a stone's throw of Jordan's border with Israel.

But in 1994, after the two countries signed a peace agreement, this previously highly sensitive military zone was opened up and among the keenest to gain access were the archaeologists.

This area, known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan was thought to be the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the River Jordan.

After excavation work began in 1996 the remains of Byzantine and Roman churches, baptismal pools and pilgrims' hostels were unearthed.

These, combined with written records describing the site in ancient times, convinced many of the archaeologists, along with many religious authorities, that this was indeed the baptismal site.

Over the space of 2000 years the River Jordan's course has changed innumerable times and the actual spot believed to be the baptism site is now marooned in a muddy meander, long cut off from the present main channel.

Stone steps lead down into the murky water near the ruins of a Byzantine church which still contains remnants of a beautiful mosaic floor.

A short walk through mostly tamarisk trees brings one to the river itself and a simple wooden platform and steps where modern-day pilgrims can descend into the river.

During the 19th century, visitors noted seeing tigers, lions, bears and hyenas in what was known as the Jungle of the Jordan. Old Testament prophet Jeremiah also refers to lions beside the Jordan.

Even the main channel of the river is the colour of milk chocolate, the flow almost imperceptible. The west bank in Israel is only about five or six metres away. You could probably wade across.

On the west bank there is a series of stone terraces dotted with mature palm trees. The Jordanian guard tells us the palms arrived only that morning.

This is my second visit to the site and I am yet to see any signs of life on the Israeli side.

But there is plenty of activity on the Jordanian side.

The golden domed Greek Orthodox church that stands near the entrance to the baptism site won't dominate the landscape much longer.

Our guide (because the area is still a sensitive zone visitors are required to have a local guide with them) explains that several other Christian groups are now building churches here - hence the cranes and flurry of construction.

It looks like no expense is being spared either and any building work will be costly here because of its isolated location. There must be millions of dollars being spent as Christians of all kinds stake their claim on the site.

In addition to the Greek Orthodox church, work is underway on a Russian pilgrimage house, a Roman Catholic church, a Roman Orthodox monastery and a Coptic church.

A Baptist World Alliance baptism centre is already open and during his visit Pope Benedict XVI was also due to bless the cornerstones for a Latin Catholic church and Melkite Catholic church.

The administrators of the site have the backing of the Jordanian king to develop the site into a major international pilgrimage centre.

That's reasonable given its deep significant to Christians (it is also of interest to Muslims however, as they also revere John the Baptist and Jesus). More than a quarter of a million people visited in 2008.

But how utterly silly all the individual building projects seem.

What a place this would have been to demonstrate some religious unity.

What would have been wrong with one building blending design elements from Christian and Muslim traditions? Or if that is pushing things too far even simply just one church for the Christians?

Former British PM Tony Blair attended the opening of the Baptists' centre in March and commented that site was an example of togetherness and unity - it seems the opposite to me.

How sad that this site, so long inaccessible through conflict, is now the scene of expensive spiritual one-upmanship.

And did none of the religious powers-that-be consider how much money could have been saved in the process?

Rather than pouring money into yet more bricks and mortar (something the Christian church is hardly short of around the world) could not some have been used in social development projects in the region?

- Jill Worrall

Click here for photos

Pictured above: The golden-domed Greek Orthodox church which stands near Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Photo / Jill Worrall

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