Relaymedia

Vatican Builds Biggest Middle East Church In Jordan

Complex erected at site where Jesus was baptized
( [email protected] ) Jul 18, 2003 02:04 AM EDT

The Vatican will build the biggest church of the Middle East in Jordan near the site where scholars believe Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, ANS reported.

Last week the first group of Vatican engineers arrived to inspect the location of the 5,000 square meters complex, which will be erected in a pyramid shape on the east bank of the Jordan River, says Baptism Site Commission Director Dia Al-Madani.

The church, which also includes a monastery and even an indoor lake for Baptism services, is to be constructed from old stones used in Biblical times and "can accommodate 30,000 pilgrims", explains Al-Madani in his dessert office.

Although the Vatican will fund the multi- million dollar building and a yet unknown number of priests and monks are expected to live there permanently, "believers from all denominations will be welcomed and can be baptized in the church," says Al-Madani.

"Construction of the church will begin this autumn and could be finished within three years," adds the director about what is arguable his biggest project since the Baptism Site was officially opened in 2001 as part of the world-wide Great Jubilee celebrations.

The Vatican plans were boosted by a July letter from the Patriarch of Jerusalem to the Baptism Site Commission recognizing the location near Jordan's long-lost settlement of Bethany as "the place where Jesus was baptized," he adds.

"I received the letter 10 days ago," Al-Madani says with a smile. Some Christian groups even asked one of his Muslim guides to help them explain the Bible versions related to the Baptism of Jesus.

Christians believe the historic event marked the beginning of God Son's three year ministry that was marked by His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, giving everlasting life to everyone who accept Jesus Christ as personal Saviour and Lord.

"I am a Muslim, but I am proud to work with Christians and at one of the most important sites of Christianity," says Al-Madani. "This site is very important for Jordan, it is the sunrise of faith."

Archaeologists have long believed the east bank of the Jordan river could reveal the Baptism Site and Bethany, the place where John the Baptist is said to have lived.

However Jordan's four decades of state of war with neighboring Israel changed the area into a front-line with landmines littering the landscape, making further investigations impossible.

After late King Hussein signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 accompanied by a process of demilitarization on the Jordan site of the Jordan river, archaeological excavations began in 1996 as part of the kingdom's plan to attract tourists to the Baptism Site.

But since the first foreigners arrived here two years ago, just tens of thousands of people visited the location, far below the annual 1,2 million dreamed up by the Baptism Site Commission.

Tour operators tell ANS that Jordan's tourism has been suffering because of ongoing suicide attacks in Israel and the war in Iraq. "We hope the new church will help to attract more people and that they will feel safe here to be baptized," says Al-Madani.

Yet security guards and watch towers at the Israeli site of the river are reminders of recent conflicts that have ravaged the Middle East.

A heavily armed Jordanian soldier watches as an Orthodox priest administers water from the Jordan River to a deaf and blind ten-year old boy. He apparently believes the water where Jesus was baptized, has healing power.