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Blessing at location where it is claimed Jesus was baptised

Pope Benedict XVI blessed the cornerstones of two new churches on the eastern bank of the Jordan River yesterday, further legitimising the country's claim as the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptised.

AMMAN // Pope Benedict XVI blessed the cornerstones of two new churches on the eastern bank of the Jordan River yesterday, further legitimising the country's claim as the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptised. The Pope also celebrated mass at the site, Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan, following in the steps of his predecessor, John Paul II, during his pilgrimage here in 2000.

The Pope arrived at the site, a semi-arid, dusty area, in a buggy accompanied by King Abdullah and Queen Rania and several cardinals. He blessed the stones of the Church of the Baptism of Christ, the first Catholic church to be built on the site, and the Melkite church, drawing loud applause from the audience. "We enter the church through baptism. The memory of Christ's own baptism is brought vividly before us in this place," Pope Benedict said.

The land for the new churches was donated by the government. There are five others being built on the grounds, including a Russian pilgrimage house, a Roman Catholic church, a Roman Orthodox monastery and a Coptic church. Thousands of worshippers from Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon prayed and sung hymns as they waited three hours before the Pope's arrival. The pontiff appeared contemplative as he passed by the Jordan River's still waters.

With its scrub and bushes, the area still looks the way it is believed it did more than 2,000 years ago. The cave of John the Baptist, who lived on honey and locusts in the nearby wilderness, is still here, believers say. In Jesus's time the river was described as flowing and wide but today it has shrunken and given way to tall reeds. Environmentalists say Israel, Jordan and Syria are to blame for diverting and causing water levels to drop.

Despite a long day that began with a papal mass at a stadium in the Jordanian capital, the pontiff appeared relaxed as he listened to a speech by Bishop Salim Sayegh, the Latin bishop of Jordan, who highlighted the importance of the site to Christianity. "In this site of Christ's baptism the two testaments, old and new, meet on the path of salvation," he said. "Indeed after the death of Moses, it was here that Joshua with all his people forded the river in order to enter the promised land."

Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan is rich in biblical history. It is also where it is believed the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot. The pilgrimage is one of the last events the Pope undertook yesterday before his visit to Israel and the West Bank this week. Israel insists that Jesus was baptised on its side of the river although in recent years archaeological discoveries have lent weight to Jordan's claims. For Christians the site has religious significance but for the government it represents vast potential to market Jordan as a pilgrimage destination. The wilderness where John the Baptist walked is now a visitor centre and Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan is undergoing a major redevelopment plan. Tourism, including religious pilgrimages, makes up 14 per cent of the country's GDP.

Archaeological work in the area since 1996 uncovered more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from the Roman and Byzantine period. "This place is on the Christian pilgrimage map," Maha Khatib, the minister of tourism, told Jordan's state TV. "This is an important visit that will further motivate us to attract more Christian religious pilgrims." smaayeh@thenational.ae

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