Jordan Officials Look to Pope's Visit to Spur Tourism

Wednesday, 21 May 2014 02:30 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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For centuries, Christians have believed Jesus Christ was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River. Jordan and Israel have long differed on which side of the river the baptism occurred.

Tourism officials from both countries offer their own baptism sites across the river from each other, with most people visiting Israel's West Bank, The Washington Post reported. Jordanian officials look for that to change after Saturday, when Pope Francis will visit the baptism site on their side of the narrow stream.

The pontiff is making his first journey to the Holy Land as Pope, and Jordanian officials hope his visit will help them market the river and other pilgrimage sites in their country and draw tourists to "the other Holy Land."

Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.

The Bible tourism industry generates more than $3 billion a year in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Ynet News reported. 

Francis is the third Pope to visit the Jordanian site, called Bethany Beyond the Jordan, with John Paul II making the first modern pilgrimage to the site as part of a jubilee tour. His visit signaled the Vatican's blessing of the Jordanian site as the likely place where Jesus was baptized.

Jordanian officials say that their site is overshadowed by Qasr al-Yahud, or the Castle of the Jews, on the Israeli side, despite archaeological evidence that says Christ was baptized at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

The Israeli site, in the occupied West Bank, is described by the Israeli Tourism Ministry as "the traditional spot where the New Testament narrative of the baptism of Jesus took place.”

Saar Kfir, who manages the site for the Israeli parks agency, told the Post that as Jesus arrived from Nazareth, "he would have been on this side of the river."

The river's west bank was a closed military zone until just a few years ago and operates as an Israeli national park by day and is guarded by Israeli military troops at night.

Far more tourists visit the Israeli side. An estimated 430,000 people visited Qasr al-Yahud last year, compared to 90,000 at the Bethany site, tourism officials report, according to the Post.

Entry is free to the Israeli site, but the Jordanian site is difficult to reach because travelers must obtain a visa. In addition, the region's unrest discourages Western travelers, Ynet said.

The Jordan River is also important to biblical history, with tradition saying it is where the Jews crossed into Israel and where the prophet Elijah's ascension took place.

Jordanian archaeologists say Bethany is linked to Jesus' baptism through a fourth-century monastery dedicated to Elijah, which may have been commissioned to mark the baptism site.

Francis:Pope’s Hidden Life Revealed.

Nidal Qatamin, Jordan's tourism minister, told the Post his country has more than 36 sacred Christian sites and 2,000 years of pilgrimages, including Mount Nebo, where Moses is believed to have gazed upon the Promised Land.

Jordan is also building its tourism through the efforts of King Abdullah II, and is awarding free plots of land along the Jordan River to Christian denominations, according to the Post.

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