By RON FRIEDMAN
The ceremony, which celebrates Jesus’s baptism by St. John the Baptist, draws Orthodox Christian pilgrims from around Israel and the world.
An estimated 15,000 people attended the annual Feast of the Epiphany celebrations Tuesday at Qasr el Yahud, on the banks of the Jordan River.
The ceremony, which celebrates Jesus’s baptism by St. John the Baptist, drew Orthodox Christian pilgrims from around Israel and the world and featured a procession from the Monastery of St. John led by Theophilos III, the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and a waterside ceremony.
Qasr el Yahud, located near the Palestinian city of Jericho, is considered the third most holy site for Christian pilgrims, after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is believed to be the site where, according to the New Testament, John the Baptist first baptized Jesus and where Jesus began his ministry.
Thousands joined in the procession and watched the ceremony on flat screen monitors placed on a platform overlooking the river. A lucky few even got to reach the bank and immerse in the yellowish waters of the Jordan. Some pilgrims collected water samples in plastic bottles, sharing them with those who didn’t get a chance to reach the waters’ edge.
At the height of the ceremony, the patriarch released white doves, symbolizing the presence of God, into the air, while church bells rang in the background and pilgrims on both sides of the river sang out prayers. The doves flew across the river to the Jordanian side and perched above the heads of the crowd who viewed the ceremony from the opposite bank.
“It was an enormously spiritual experience,” said Alex, a pilgrim from Russia, who came to Israel especially for the ceremony.
“We believe that the waters of the Jordan are holy and have special powers. For me to be baptized here was a huge privilege and a memory that I will carry with me for ever.”
Bishop Irineus, head of the Orthodox Church in Cluj, Romania, arrived in Israel five days ago with a group of 55 pilgrims from Transylvania. It was Irineus’ second visit to the site; his first had been in 1990, and he said that he was impressed by the renovation that the site had undergone.
“The Feast of the Epiphany is a very significant day for us. It is like Christmas or Easter. We commemorate the revelation of the Holy Trinity and believe that it is mystically renewed every year with the same power, grace and blessing,” said Irineus.
The bishop also spoke of the mystical powers of the waters of the Jordan River and said that he had personally experienced their miraculous properties.
The site of Qasr el Yahud, which is also believed to be the spot where the Israelites first entered Canaan, under the leadership of Joshua after the Exodus from Egypt, has undergone extensive renovation work in recent years, in an effort to turn it into a major tourism destination.
The works, including the construction of wooden ramps into the Jordan River, erecting shaded areas near the Greek Church and throughout the site, the improvement of the bathroom and shower facilities and the construction of a parking lot, were all recently completed after being frozen for years due to the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.
Funding for renovation of the site was provided by the Tourism Ministry, the Regional Cooperation Ministry and the Defense Ministry, with a total of roughly NIS 8 million invested in infrastructure and development. The site is operated by the National Parks Authority, under the auspices of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria.
The site currently operates six days a week and visitors need to coordinate their arrival with the military.
“I was presented with the plan when I first entered office two years ago and upon learning that the site had been closed for 43 years, decided to authorize its renovation,” said Vice Premier and Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom.
“We have invested over NIS 4 million in the project already and have earmarked half a million more to build a dam, together with the Jordanians, that will keep the water level in the area high year round.”
One of the major problems with the site is that it is surrounded from the north and the south by old mine fields, with the barbed wire fences and yellow warning signs presenting a stark contrast to the placid desert backdrop. Though the military assures that the site itself is clear of mines, the access road, which is a narrow corridor in the middle of the minefield, is far from inviting for tourists.
According to Dhyan Or, Israeli director of Roots of Peace, an NGO that advocates for the removal of all landmines in Israel, the Jordanians have cleared thousands of mines to enable the development of the region, but Israel has not done enough to remove the mines on its side of the river.
“The Jordanians started a mine-clearing pilot project here at Qasr el Yahud and we urge Israel to do the same. Currently the site is insufficiently appealing to tourists because of the troubling surroundings.
There is no reason that Israel can’t draw 800,000 tourists to the site, the same way the Jordanians do,” said Or.
Shalom said that in the upcoming weeks additional measures would be taken to clear more mines and widen the access road leading to the site.
“Once all the renovation works are complete, we will open the site to daily visits and we expect it to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. We have identified tourism as essential to the promotion of regional cooperation and are currently working on forming joint tourism packages together with the Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority,” said Shalom.
An official opening ceremony that was planned for Monday, featuring Shalom, has been postponed to March.
Last week, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov sent a letter to Shalom asking him to cancel the planned ceremony.
“In the opinion of the Tourism Ministry, holding the public ceremony will stir protest and international resistance, including grievous harm to Israel’s relationship with church leaders, turning the site into a bone of contention, harming the interest of Israel and the Tourism Ministry,” read the letter.