Armenian priests stood in two different countries but chanted the solemn epiphany service together from both sides of the Jordan River on Sunday.
“Physically we are divided,” Chancellor of the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Koryoun Baghdasaryan told The Jerusalem Post after the ceremony.
“But on this feast, spiritually all of the Armenians both the Armenians of Jordan [on] the other side of the river, and the Armenians of the Holy Land here – and the Armenians communities from different diasporas they are together.
“Spiritually they are united. Despite the physical division, they are together on this feast,” he said.
Baghdasaryan wore a black frock and hood. He held his hands apart and then brought them together as he spoke to emphasize the unity had he just experienced.
He stood in a historic spot in the National Park and Nature Reserve site at Qasr al-Yehud, where John is said to have baptized Jesus, an event the epiphany service marks.
Here where the muddy brown water slowly ripples, the Jews were said to have crossed the Jordan River into the land of Israel. From here as well, the biblical Jewish prophet Elijah is said to have ascended to heaven.
It is a history that has taken place in the sensitive geographical territory, known as Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli military and civilian control, but is not part of sovereign Israel.
It was part of the territory Israel captured from Jordan during the Six Day War.
Historically, Christians have made pilgrimages to the site. Baghdasaryan said the Armenians have been doing so since the fourth century, when they established a presence in the Holy Land. There were times, he said, when the ceremony would be held on a boat in the middle of the river.
Now the river – no wider than the space of a city street, such that it is possible to speak across it – marks the border between Jordan and the Israeli-controlled territory of the West Bank.
Christian worshipers can pray together on either side of the rivers banks, but they cannot cross, because such travel can only happen at an official border site, such as the nearby Allenby Bridge crossing.
Prior to the Six Day War, the land between what is now Route 90 in the West Bank and the Jordan River was home to a number of monasteries. Priests, however, were forced to abandon the area when cross-border violence between Israel and Jordan during the war of attrition made it unsafe to worship in the monasteries or by the river.
Israel placed thousands of mines at the site to prevent Jordanian infiltration, and the area was a closed military zone.
Peace and worship has returned slowly to the area in the aftermath of Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, which made Sunday’s ceremony possible.
Already two decades ago, the site was opened by the IDF for special ceremonies. Then in 2011 it became a national park, a move that has fostered Christian pilgrimage to the area, particularly in January, when a number of Christian denominations hold epiphany events by the Jordan River.
This year there were six, starting with the Franciscan Order on January 10, followed by the Greek Orthodox and the Ethiopians on 18th, then the Syrian and the Coptic Churches on the 19th, and ending with the Armenians on Sunday.
Since 2017, the Israel National Mines Action Authority, the international NGO HALO Trust and the IDF have deactivated the land mines and are in the process of opening up the church that had been abandoned. Israel would like to see the area, dubbed Land of the Monasteries, open for tourism.
As a result of that project, the Franciscan Order was able to access and worship the epiphany service in its church at the site, for the first time in 54 years. The Ethiopian Church, however, is structurally unsound and as a result, the Ethiopians held the first part of their service on a small asphalt road outside the church before heading to the river.
Baghdasaryan said that these services are typically attended by thousands of worshipers, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only the priests and a small number of guests could attend.
Jericho District Coordination and Liaison Office head Lt.-Col. Amos Twito said: “COGAT’s Civil Administration has been especially busy in recent weeks arranging for the baptism ceremonies to be performed in keeping with the guidelines and restrictions. It’s all part of the effort to maintain freedom of worship and freedom of religion for all the Christian denominations, while safeguarding the security and health of the worshipers.”
Sharon Regev, director of the Department for World Religions in the Foreign Ministry, who also helped ensure that the services took place, said: “It is important that tradition and worship continues.”
“When the pandemic is over, we want to invite worshipers from all over the world to return to see the beautiful mosaic of the religious landscape here in the holy land,” she said.
Among those who attended Sunday’s ceremony was Narek Ghazaryan, consul for the Republic of Armenia’s Embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv. Although the countries have had relations for close to three decades, Armenia opened an embassy in Israel only last year and then withdrew its ambassador that same year to protest Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan.
This “is the first time that the representative of the State of Armenia is present at this ceremony,” Ghazaryan told The Jerusalem Post.
“It is kind of a historical moment for the Armenian Church, that the representative of the Republic of Armenia is here and standing by the side of the church,” he said. It symbolizes “the unity of the state and church of Armenia.”
Ghazaryan said he hopes “maybe next year we will be represented here on a higher level.”