The Jordan, source of greed of all churches

Bell towers of all religions constantly come from the earth in Bethany, Jordan, on the eastern bank of the river where Christ was baptized.

Amman and Bethany (Jordan)

From our special envoy

The eyes of the child, waving above the baptistery, deviate from surprise in contact with drops of cold water seeping on his forehead. At the end of the summer morning, marked by a stifling heat, the little Omar does not cry. His mother, on the other hand, seems to drop a tear, dried at the beginning of his course by the wind, burning and suffocating, desert reaching as far as the eye reaches. On the banks of the Jordan, on the east bank of the Hashemite monarchy, the baptism of the toddler, 7 months old, takes this day a special symbolic dimension: it takes place in Bethany, where Christ himself would have received, two thousand years earlier, this very first sacrament of John the Baptist. And if the authenticity of the site is officially never officially recognized, the Jordanians defend it hard as iron.

Since the end of the nineties, "We perform archaeological excavations based on the instructions in the Gospel of John (Joh.1, 24-28) and the descriptions of pilgrims from the IVe and XIIe century " explains, enthusiastically, Rustom Mkhjan, vice director of the administration of the site. The man, unsaleable, does not hold his place. He points, behind him, the Greek names of the surrounding biblical cities inscribed on a large mosaic of "The map of Madaba" to confirm his words: "Bethany is the real place of the baptism of Christ." Over the past two decades, research has included the discovery of nine cellars of churches and chapels, baptismal pools, watersheds and a wide range of other remains. artifacts suggesting that the region, during antiquity, was a high place of Christian pilgrimage. However, its historical truthfulness has never been officially proven: a few kilometers away, on the other side of the river, Israel uses a substantially similar argument to justify the iconic biblical episode … on the west bank of the river.

In 2015, fleeing the controversy, Unesco justified the classification of the Jordanian holy place as world heritage of humanity, not through the baptism of Christ, but through the waves of pilgrims who have sailed for more than a millennium and a half. After St. John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009, the visit to Pope Francis's Bethany in 2014 also helped to make the spotlight, the Jordanian side, shine on this city at the source of Christianity .

The memory of his presence still permeates the site, as evidenced by another mosaic presentation, in the curve of a path, which the current pope recalls, along with King Abdullah II of Jordan, on the edge of holy water. "It was a very symbolic moment and an honor for all Catholics, minorities in the country," remembers father Rif & # 39; at Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media of Jordan, connected to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and parish priest of Naour, about twenty kilometers south-west of Amman.

All denominations together, Christians represent only 4% of the population, overwhelming Sunnis in the kingdom. Difficult to imagine when we walk through this country of Wadi Al-Kharrar – "The melodious valley" in Arabic – this vast and deserted no man's land, where only a few dozen crosses, domes and spiers on the horizon become blurred by the heat.

The vastness of the country continues to grow under the impulse of Christian communities of all religions. "There are now five large churches on this Jordan bank, mostly orthodox: 300,000 to 400,000 people come every year" explains the guide Khaled Samawi, who shows various buildings behind him. Since a few years, buildings – Syrian, Orthodox Russian, Armenian, Lutheran … – have evolved, eager to attract the faithful of their community in the footsteps of the baptism of Jesus.

When he passes the large building that was started about ten years ago by the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, Remy can not cry out. Last year, this thirty-year-old catholic from Clermont-Ferrand (Puy-de-Dôme) spent several months as a volunteer in the local church in the kingdom. He then had the opportunity to visit Betanië: the Catholic parish was far from finished. "It has since grown at a crazy speed," he notes enthusiastically. "With a capacity of 2,000 people, it should become one of the largest in the Middle East", adds father Bader. Elsewhere in the kingdom others want to follow this path. "We are looking for funds to build a Maronite church next to the river," entrusted to Bishop Ghazi El Khoury, Episcopal Vicar of the Kingdom and Bishop of St. Charbel, parish in Amman. Ethiopians and Anglicans are also planning to build one. Does this multiplication, so concentrated, of the bell towers contain a climate of competition, of outbidding, between the various communities?

"Twenty years ago there was the issue of having a single place of worship for all Christians", Bishop El Khoury continues. So published by the Franciscan archaeologist Michele Piccirillo, this idea of ​​a large joint memorial, which is complex to implement, has been eroded over time. "We preferred to have everyone gather in his denominational place, while he discovered those of other denominations." Sign of the great benevolence of the Hashemite monarchy with regard to Christian minorities – and his will to develop religious tourism in the valley -, King Abdullah II had then offered the Christians grounds, so that each community his place of worship. The idea is a success and a very strong symbol of peace.

Thirty years ago this bet was far from won. At the beginning of the 1990s, the bottom of these orange sandstone hills was still full of explosives, relics entangled in decades of border conflict between Israel and Jordan. "There were thousands of anti-personnel mines, reminds Rustom Mkhjanwhere we could bring thousands of pilgrims … "

Malo Tresca