The Jordan Valley site where Christians believe Jesus was baptized was reopened to the public at large last week, in a ceremony hosted by Minister Silvan Shalom.
The site is one of the holiest in Christianity.
As the speeches of thanks were being made in the 40-degree Celsius weather, the hundreds of guests glanced at the Jordan River, where believers are still baptized.
For Christians, the re-opening of Qasr al-Yahud is indeed a celebration. Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist symbolizes the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and spiritual purification. For the Eastern churches, which put greater emphasis on Jesus' resurrection and less on the immaculate conception, this baptismal site is particularly important. On the Epiphany, on January 6, tens of thousands of pilgrims go to the river clad in white and observe the baptismal rite.
Qasr al-Yahud ("Castle of the Jews" ) had essentially been closed for 44 years. It was abandoned following the Six-Day War in 1967. During the military unrest in the Jordan Valley, the Israel Defense Forces mined the area and set up an electric fence to the west of the site. There had been many monasteries in the area, but the monks abandoned them.
Baptisms renewed at the site only in the 1980s.
In recent years, the IDF had been allowing pilgrims to visit the site, so long as they coordinated in advance. But in practice, visitors came only on Christian holidays.
Now, following restoration and development, it will be open to all, on a regular basis.
Sister Nicolida, one of the people present, could hardly contain her excitement. She comes from a small village in Romania and now lives in a monastery belonging to the Romanian Orthodox Church, "near Mea She'arim in Jerusalem."
She said she had been waiting in anticipation for days. After kissing the crosses worn by the elderly Patriarchs at the ceremony, the nun ran to the water's edge and began splashing herself and crossing herself.
She is responsible for guiding pilgrims at the site, and says she is waiting for an influx of Romanian pilgrims.
"This is very important for us," she said. "We generally go to Yardenit [a small baptismal site near the Sea of Galilee] but now we will be able to come here all year round."
But like everything else in the West Bank, here too there was a great deal of political agitation behind the scenes. The site was reopened at the initiative of Regional Development Minister Shalom, who put a great deal of effort into the project.
Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov has been responsible for promoting tourism there. And indeed the site was funded by the Tourism Ministry.
But that ministry had no representatives at the ceremony, which was directed by Shalom. Both sides hotly denied that there had been any intrigues and said it was merely a matter of priorities. But sources said there had indeed been disputes.
The next and most important chapter will be Israel's campaign vis-a-vis local church establishments. The Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians are waging a quiet but significant battle behind the scenes for the support of church leaders who enjoy a great deal of respect abroad. Certain aspects of relations with the Christian communities, such as the appointment of local patriarchs, require all three sides' agreement.
Meanwhile, they are constantly competing. The re-opening of the baptismal site earned Israel kudos from churches, and the clergymen in the VIP tent could be seen excitedly thanking Shalom after the ceremony.
The Palestinians are meanwhile sitting on the fence.
As a matter of caution, the site will be operated personally by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and visits to the site will be free.
The settlers from the surrounding communities, who had hoped to be given permission to operate the site, boycotted the ceremony.
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