IDF to lift military curfew for pilgrims

Thousands to make pilgrimage to site on Jordan River where Jesus is believed to have been baptized.

baptism jordan river 224 (photo credit: AP)
baptism jordan river 224
(photo credit: AP)
The IDF will temporarily lift a military curfew on Tuesday and Wednesday to allow thousands of Eastern Christians to make a pilgrimage to the site on the Jordan River, near Jericho, where Jesus is believed to have been baptized by John the Baptist. The IDF has closed the site since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Twice a year, however, the IDF, the Civil Administration and Office for Liaison and Coordination in Jericho facilitate the visit by pilgrims at the location, called Qasr el-Yahud in Arabic. Participants from all over the world are expected to attend. The largest contingency will be from the Greek Orthodox Church, which has a significant indigenous congregation made up of Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel under the Law of Return. Ethiopian, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox congregations will also take part. A procession will set out from the St. John Monastery to the baptism site. Aristorchus, a senior Greek Orthodox clergyman, said that the site of Jesus' Baptism is a major attraction. "Believers come to the Holy Land for a 'pilgrim's baptism,'" said Aristorchus. "It is not a baptism that is part of a conversion. Rather people are drawn to the Jordan River because it has holy attributes as mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments." Aristorchus cited the story in Kings II about the prophet Elisha, who cured Na'aman, leader of the army of Aram, of leprosy, as well as the New Testament stories of John the Baptist. "People want to be close to this holiness." According to Chrysostum, a Greek Orthodox priest based in Jerusalem, a central part of the ceremony will be the blessing of the water of the Jordan River by senior clergy. "The blessed water is believed to provide both spiritual and physical healing," said Chrysostum. Jericho Coordination and Liaison Office Director Yitzhak Deri said the State of Israel had an interest in making the site accessible to Christians. "We want to provide freedom of religious expression at a place considered to be the third-most important holy site for Christians," he said. Deri said that Eastern Christians are provided access to the site at Christmas and at Easter. Last January, some 25,000 visited the site. He added that, for security reasons, pilgrims would not be allowed to immerse themselves in the Jordan River. But large tanks filled with water from the river would be filled and made available to those who wish to be baptized or immerse themselves. The pilgrims would also be allowed to fill bottles of Jordan River water as a memento. Eastern Christian sects are currently celebrating Easter, Christianity's most important holiday, which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. This year Eastern Christians are celebrating Easter more than a month after their western brethren due to discrepancies in the Gregorian and Julian calendars. Eastern Christians always celebrate their Easter after Pessah. In an attempt to encourage Christian tourism, the Tourism Ministry has invested NIS 2 million in developing and preparing the site of Jesus's baptism for visitors. A Civil Administration press release noted that "a mass baptism will be held by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus III." The Civil Administration's reference to Theophilus III as the patriarch of Jerusalem marks a change in policy dating back to the beginning of the year. Until then, Israel had refused to recognize Theophilus III. Theophilos III replaced Irineos I, who was ousted in May 2005 over claims by the Palestinian and Jordanian Greek Orthodox communities in the Holy Land that Irineos I had illegally sold church property to Jewish investors.