Jordan began Christmas celebrations by unveiling a project that could attract 1 million pilgrims annually to the officially recognized site of Jesus' baptism on the east bank of the Jordan River.
An area adjacent to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, as mentioned in the New Testament, will be developed to allow Christian pilgrims and visitors to spend more quality time at the Baptism Site, as it is called, "to learn, appreciate and renew their journey of faith and spirituality."
More than 25 years ago, excavations began on the east bank of the Jordan River and uncovered the Baptism Site. The area is full of the ruins of ancient Roman and Byzantine churches and chapels, a monastery, hermit caves and baptism pools, destroyed by earthquakes and the river's flooding. Through the centuries, the area had commemorated the site of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. Now, modern-day visitors can spend only a couple of hours there due to a lack of accommodations and services.
A $300 million six-phased building project to establish a biblical tourist village located adjacent to this UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site seeks to address that, while respecting the spiritual integrity of the holy site itself. The goal is to see this possibly completed for the 2,000th anniversary of Christ's baptism.
Catholic and other Christian leaders welcomed Jordan's plans to transform the Baptism Site into one of the world's leading Christian pilgrimage and spiritual destinations.
"For 2,000 years churches were established here as part of world heritage. Now is the time to fulfill the needs of the pilgrims who come to the Baptism Site, which until now has provided basic services," explained Father Rifat Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Jordan. "There are also some churches in the area that have not yet been completed or consecrated."
"However, for pilgrims who wish to spend more than an hour or two at the site and would like to pray, rest, have privacy, and enjoy the experience of John the Baptist in the wilderness, this project aims to improve the lands beside the holy site," the priest told Catholic News Service.
"The Baptism Site is the land of prayer. The proposed master plan is beautiful, but now we need for this new project providing services for pilgrims to be realized. However, time, money and effort are needed from everyone," he emphasized.
Greek Orthodox Father Ibrahim Dabbour, who heads the Assembly of Christian Leaders of Jordan representing all denominations, praised the project.
"It's very important. The site itself is very important in the worship of God. From the Baptism Site, Jesus began his mission to all the nations -- his mission of love. It's very important for Christians to come and be sanctified by the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus Christ himself was baptized," Father Dabbour told CNS.
"The Baptism Site is a spiritual place. There were many monks and monasteries in this area as well as in Egypt and Sinai. Monasteries were built in this area because of the holy places and lands. Our king King Abdullah II) is making this project to enable Christians to come and be purified from the holy water of the Jordan River," he said.
The Jordanian monarch attended the project's inauguration on Dec. 8 and has been lauded by Christian leaders for fostering religious harmony in the Muslim majority kingdom by offering land for churches and pilgrimage centers. King Abdullah also has been recognized by Catholics and others for his promotion of peace in the troubled Middle East, support of interreligious dialogue, welcome of refugees and educational reforms.
Samir Murad, a former Jordanian labor minister, heads the project for the nonprofit Foundation for Development of Lands Adjacent to the Baptism Site. The foundation is not connected to the government, but rather is self-financed, fully independent and governed by a board of trustees appointed by royal decree. Murad affirmed that the spiritual integrity of the site will be preserved.
"We are mandated to work in sync with the commission, international law, and very much in line with the holy churches around the world," he told CNS.
The adjacent area of some 400 acres will see farms set up engaging local community development by providing food to restaurants on the ground, a "glamping" village of traditional Bedouin tents housing visitors, a botanical garden of biblical fruit-baring plants and herbs with those revived like the balsam tree, and eventually a bird sanctuary, museum and small amphitheater. Wi-Fi and GSM infrastructure are below ground to avoid visual distortion of the wilderness setting. A three-star hotel may come later.
"We will protect the site in its current state and format. However, because this site belongs to the world, to humanity, it is essential that people have access to it," Murad said. "We will create a destination where visitors can come and enjoy the Baptism Site. Simplicity with modernity in a very low-profile manner."
"All donations received will be spent within the project itself," said Murad, who along with the board of trustees volunteers their time to seeing access to this valuable historic treasure enlarged. "This is a project for all of humanity, for all of time."
St. John Paul II visited the Baptism Site, about 30 miles west of Amman, in March 2000 and celebrated Mass there, while Pope Benedict XVI visited in May 2009 and blessed the foundation stones of the Latin and Greek Melkite churches. Five years later, Pope Francis prayed there and placed the cornerstone for the building of a big Catholic Church and two monasteries.
Other Christian denominations, including the Anglicans, recognize the Jordanian site and are also constructing churches. The Greek Orthodox St. George Church and the Russian Pilgrim Residence are already present. The site is overseen by the Baptism Site Commission, chaired by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a cousin of King Abdullah.