Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Jordan // Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, laid the cornerstone of an Anglican church yesterday on the eastern bank of the Jordan river as part of a four-day pilgrimage tour to the Holy land. "This place is set apart for prayers for honouring the name of John the Baptist, the prophet of Bethany and for the praise of the most holy name of our Lord," he said in prayers as a congregation of around 600 Anglican worshippers in Jordan gathered around him.
Once built, John the Baptist church will be one of eight different Christian churches and monasteries under construction at the site, which was discovered in 1996. The site already boasts remnants of more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Byzantine period. Jordan hopes to turn the site - at which John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ - into a global pilgrimage destination.
The land where the Anglican church will be built was donated by King Abdullah two years ago. Prince Charles approved the design of the church last month: It will be built in the gothic style similar to ancient Anglican churches in the Britain, with a high altar facing east and the main doors in the west. This is the archbishop's second visit to Jordan since 2004 and the fifth to the region. He arrived here on Friday, accompanied by the Rev Michael Jackson of Ireland. He is expected in Jerusalem this afternoon where he will lead an evening mass at the Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr.
His itinerary includes a visit to Ramallah tomorrow and then Gaza on Tuesday where he will stop at the Ahli Hospital, is run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. During the Israeli onslaught on Gaza Strip more than a year ago, the hospital provided emergency care for dozens of residents who were injured. Overlooking the eastern bank of the Jordan River - once wide and flowing, but now slow and reduced in size - the archbishop compared the waters of the river to the hearts of the people.
"As we gather by the side of the Jordan, we can think of the waters of the river as the sign of our own hearts - sometimes turbulent, sometimes sluggish and loaded with mud and debris, flowing slowly towards the unknown expanses of the sea," he said in a sermon. "Into these waters of our confusion and muddy turbulence, God enters, and immerses himself completely." While his visit to the region comes at a time of turmoil and escalating violence, he urged people not to lose hope.
"It's the same world as the one into which Jesus came - in so many ways a place that can drive us to despair or rage, and yet now and forever a world in which God is real, so that neither rage and despair can be the only or the ultimate option for us," he said. "May the God who has called us his beloved sons and daughters in baptism give us the courage to be faithful to this gift of presence - the courage always to begin again, day after day, to be a Christian."
In his previous visits to the region, the archbishop condemned Israel for the separation wall, and condemned the violence in the Middle East. Israel has refused to allow the accompanying priests and bishops to enter Gaza, save for the archbishop and a driver. Therefore Suhail Dawwani, the bishop of Jerusalem, will be driving him," said Ghazi Musharbash, an active member of the Anglican Church in Jordan.
"His visit here comes in support to the Palestinian cause," he said. The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem has a presence in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel. It has an estimated 7,000 followers and supports 33 institutions including hospitals, clinics, kindergartens, schools and vocational training programmes, as well as institutions for the deaf, the disabled and the elderly.
Yesterday, the archbishop expressed concern about the dwindling presence of Christians in the Middle East. "We worry deeply about the dwindling of numbers here. I believe it's the first importance that we keep that solidarity, friendship and presence. It's a joy for me be here." email@example.com