The almost 100-year-old church and monastery were vacated in 1967 at the outbreak of war between Israel and some of its Arab neighbours, including Jordan, just across the Jordan River. The area was laid out with land mines and it became a fenced military zone, off limits to pilgrims. The landmines have now been removed and the church will be refurbished, under the supervision of the Franciscan custody of the Holy Land. Bullet holes will be left as a reminder of the violence of war.
According to Christian tradition, John baptised Jesus in the Jordan River. Typical of the region’s conflicting land claims, both Jordan and Israel maintain the New Testament baptismal site stands on their soil, and the sites face each other on either side of the Jordan. On the Israeli-controlled side in the West Bank, the site is called Qasr al-Yahud, Arabic for “Castle of the Jews” or “Crossing of the Jews”. In Jordan, it is called al-Maghtas, or “Baptism Site”. The Qasr Al-Yahud location is also revered by Jews as the crossing place along the Jordan River of the Biblical Israelites into the Promised Land after having wandered the desert for 40 years. The Bible describes the river, which flows south from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea, marking the border shared by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, as “overflowing”. Today, most Christian pilgrims who visit Israel immerse themselves in the fresh waters of the Jordan river at Yardenit, a modern-day baptismal tourist site near the Sea of Galilee, about 80 miles upstream.
Israel’s Qasr al-Yahud site is the third most sacred place for Christians, after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. Christians believe that Jesus’ spiritual birth took place here after his physical birth in Bethlehem. Yet, when pilgrims have occasionally been allowed to the spot their jaws often drop. Expecting to see the raging clean river described in the Bible, they find that the river is greatly diminished at this spot and the water is very dirty.
Over the past five decades, Israel, Jordan and Syria have diverted about 98 percent of the Jordan River and its tributaries for drinking water and agricultural use. In addition, political deadlock between governments sharing the river and its tributaries has exacerbated water shortage. Israel and neighbouring Arab countries have complained about each other’s projects to divert shared water sources for their own needs. The Jordan River is the main source of water for the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel and the source of much of Israel’s drinking water. In years past Israel has threatened to send fighter jets into Lebanon to bomb even seemingly small-scale efforts to divert waters from the tributaries that flow into the River Jordan. Palestinians living in the Jordan Valley on the West Bank have been allowed very limited access to the Jordan river and have trouble watering their crops every scorching summer. Israel allocates generous tracts of land and water resources for the benefit of Israeli settlers.
Christians around the world have an investment in seeing plentiful and clean water run through the site of the baptism of Jesus. Also, in working for peace in the region, which will involve a more equal sharing of the resource of water. The Feast of the Baptism can help us turn our attention to engaging with issues surrounding the Jordan River and also to celebrate the meaning of our own baptisms.