September 1, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 732

Israel, Jordan Clash Over Site of Christ's Baptism

September 1, 2011 | By H. Varulkar*
Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 732

Several weeks ago, Israel officially reopened the Qasr Al-Yahoud baptism site on the west bank of the Jordan, near Jericho, which has been largely kept closed since 1967. The site is traditionally believed to be the location of Christ's baptism, and is one of the most important destinations for Christian pilgrims.

The opening of the Israeli site angered Jordan, which operates a baptismal site on the east bank of the river, in Al-Maghtas (also known as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan). The Jordanian government protested that the Jordanian site is the authentic one, and that it had been recognized as such by the Vatican and by Pope John Paul II, who attended its inauguration in 2000. Jordan accused Israel of falsifying history and the Christian faith and of trying to undermine Christian tourism to Jordan. It even filed a complaint to this effect with the Vatican.

It should be noted that the Jordanian and the Israeli sites directly face each other across the Jordan River, which is only a few meters wide at that point (see photos below). The conflict is therefore mainly over the Christian tourism to the area, with Jordan's concern being that the opening of the Israeli site will mean fewer visitors to the Jordanian site.

Jordan: Israel Is Violating International Law and Falsifying History

On July 27, 2011, Jordanian Tourism and Antiquities Minister Dr. Haifa Abu Ghazaleh announced that Jordan had complained to the Vatican that Israel had "violated international law and charters by establishing the place called Qasr Al-Yahoud and a baptismal site [there], and by holding an [inauguration] ceremony attended by [representatives of] several [Christian] religious streams, in order to provoke Jordan and mislead the world regarding the location of the real baptismal site, which is on Jordanian soil." The minister added: "This grave violation is a provocation [both] to Jordan and to the Vatican, represented by Pope Benedict XVI, which recognizes that the site of Christ's baptism is on the Jordanian side of the river. It is also a violation of international law because... the [Israeli] site was established on land that the international charters recognize as being under occupation... This is one of an entire series of grave violations of the international laws, charters, and principles, and an attempt to falsify the facts of human history."

Abu Ghazaleh reported that her ministry and the Jordanian Foreign Ministry had held a meeting with representatives of all the Christian sects in Jordan, who had likewise condemned the Israeli move. According to her, the administration of the Al-Maghtas site had also met with Israeli army officers on King Hussein Bridge, and expressed its strong opposition to the opening of the Israeli site; the Israelis, she said, responded that opening the site and inviting Christian representatives to the opening ceremony was an initiative by the Office of the Israeli Prime Minister and by the Israeli Ministry of Regional Cooperation.[1]

In an interview with the Jordanian website Amman Net, the minister said, "Jordan has no intention of debating with the Israeli side over a religious question that has already been settled and is uncontroversial."[2]

Heads of Christian Communities in Jordan: The Jordanian Site Is the Authentic One

Several days later, on July 30, the Jordanian interior ministry held a meeting attended by Abu Ghazaleh, Interior Minister Mazen Al-Saket, Culture Minister Jeryes Samawi, members from both houses of parliament, and heads of the Christian communities in Jordan. The participants condemned the opening of the Israeli site, and stressed: "The archeological findings, and all testimony, prove that the [authentic] baptismal site is on the east [bank]. It is important to distinguish the baptism of Christ from the baptism [of other Christians], which can take place anywhere. From a historical and religious perspective, the [real] spot where Christ was baptized is on the east [bank] of the river and is called Al-Maghtas, [and is] in Jordan."

A senior representative of the Anglican Church, Archdeacon Luay Haddad, said: "For the Christians, this issue is a very important one, and the reaction should be addressed [to people] both inside and outside [Jordan]. It is not enough to issue a communiqué stating that the site of Christ's baptism is on the east [bank], because everybody [already] acknowledges this fact. We must inform our brothers west of the river that we remain loyal to the [Jordanian] site...

"The opening of the site on the west [bank] comes at an unsuitable time, and contains an element of provocation. [The authenticity of the Jordanian site] is firmly established in the eyes of the church and from the perspective of archeology, religion and tourism. The church documents clearly confirm this, and it is acknowledged by the church's supreme authorities... It is also supported by the New Testament and by testimonies of the fathers of the early church."

Haddad added that the Anglican Church condemned the opening of the Israeli site, calling this "a grave mistake in terms of history and religion." Calling on the Christians in the Middle East and the world to "disregard Israel's plans whose transparent [goal]... is to spark a conflagration and create new confusion in the region," he said: "We hope that all the Christians, especially those in the Holy Land, will be wary of these dubious [Israeli] plans, will take a clear stand against this [new baptismal] site, and will announce that the site on the east [bank] is the only [authentic] site of Christ's baptism."[3]

On August 3, Jordanian heads of churches issued a communiqué stating that "the New Testament, Christian tradition... and [archeological] findings, as well as testimonies and writings of numerous pilgrims since the second century, unequivocally indicate that the site of Christ's baptism is on the east bank of the river..."[4]

On August 1, the heads of the Orthodox churches in the Middle East held their annual conference at the Jordanian site. Tourism and Antiquities Minister Abu Ghazaleh said that the conference had been held at that location "in order to convey a message to the world that Jordan contains the [authentic] baptismal site, recognized by all the world's churches..." The head of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, Reverend Nabil Haddad, likewise said that Israel's "totally baseless" claims are an attempt to falsify history and "do not even merit a response."[5]

Jordan Renames Its Baptismal Site "Place of Jesus's Baptism"

Another step taken by Jordan was to give its baptismal site a new name underlining its authenticity. The site's director, Diaa Madani, said that the board of trustees had decided to change the site's name from "Place of Baptism" (Al-Maghtas) to "The Place of Jesus's Baptism," to "underscore the spiritual [significance] of the site of the baptism of Jesus..." He said that the new name was now awaiting government approval.[6]

Organization Threatens to Sue Israel in International Court

On August 7, the "Union against the Expulsion of Christian Arabs," founded last month in Amman, announced that it plans to sue Israel at an international court for opening the site in Qasr Al-Yahoud. The organization is headed by the president of the Jordanian Senate, Taher Al-Masri, and includes prominent Christian and Muslim figures from across the Arab world.[7]

The Jordanian site, as seen from the Israeli side of the Jordan River

The Jordan River between the Israeli and Jordanian sites

Church on the Israeli side of the river

Articles in Jordanian Press: Israel Is Trying to Falsify History

Columnists in the Jordanian press attacked Israel, repeating the claim that it is trying to falsify history and the Christian faith, mislead world public opinion, and divert tourism from the Jordanian site. The articles called on Jordan to take a firm stand and to launch a worldwide campaign in order to thwart Israel's plan to take over the baptismal site.

Jordanian Government Daily: The Jews Don't Even Recognize Jesus, and Are Trying to Divide the Christians

Tareq Masarwa, a columnist for the Jordanian government daily Al-Rai, wrote: "The absurdity is that the Jews do not believe in the Messiah or in Jesus son of Mary. [In fact], they believe that the man who claimed this title was a fraud who deserved to be punished!! Therefore, the false claim of the Israeli government that the baptismal site is on the west [bank] of the river is nothing but an attempt to attract [tourists from] the Zionist Christian sects in America and to cause a rift among Christians – because this nefarious lie goes against the Jewish beliefs!

"Another point: the baptismal site, whether it is on the east or west [bank] of the river, is either on Jordanian soil or on Palestinian soil – so Israel has nothing to do with it, except through [its] immoral occupation! That is only a temporary connection. Nazareth belongs to us as well!...

"[Moreover,] according to the Christian faith, baptismal waters must be clean and pure, yet the water that flows in the Jordan today is polluted water that comes from the Jewish settlements in the Beit She'an [area]. Israel stole the Jordan River and then polluted what was left of it. Have impudence and contempt reached such a level that the Christians [must] be baptized in polluted water?!..."[8]

Independent Jordanian Daily: Jordan Must Take a Firm Stand

Hashem Khreisat, a regular columnist at Al-Arab Al-Yawm, called the affair a provocation and a "new plot" by Israel aimed at stealing the holy site away from Jordan. He added: "It is not enough that the Jordanian government sent a letter of protest to the Vatican in response to this provocation... This is a [serious] matter with implications for politics, religion and tourism, which necessitates a firm Jordanian stand... This harmful act is not the first and will not be the last in the series of Israel's violations of the international charters and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty. It is an attempt to falsify the facts of human history, and it is also an offense against human principles and holy tenets. It requires a proportional reaction vis-à-vis the world, which is facing [the danger of] great fraud and deception...

"The Jordanian government must launch a counter-campaign on all levels, which will not be limited to [action by] the ministries of tourism and foreign affairs. This, in order to foil the Israeli plan to take over the baptismal site and place it under its sovereignty through forgery, fraud and deception, which are Israel's domains of expertise [in its dealings] with world opinion..."[9]

Independent Jordanian Daily: All Historical and Religious Authorities Recognize the Jordanian Site

Nabil Ghishan, a columnist for the daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, wrote: "The location of the site of Christ's baptism... is a solid [fact] recognized by all the religious and historical authorities, [who hold that] the baptism took place on the east bank of the Jordan river, in the Al-Kharrar valley, [near] the village of Beit 'Anya, which is mentioned in the New Testament. There are also archeological indications at the site, as well as the recognition by the [previous] pope, John Paul II, who inaugurated the site in 2000 as a Christian pilgrimage site. [The site was also recognized by] the current pope... in 2009, and by all the churches: Orthodox, Eastern, Russian, Anglican, Protestant, Syrian, Coptic, Assyrian, Chaldean and others...

"[Israel's] despicable [move] is aimed at deceiving foreign tourists. We do not want to delve into the [question] of the authentic site of Christ's baptism, for it has already been settled by the holy New Testament, by archeological [findings], and by accounts of travelers and holy monks who visited the site and lived there since the first century AD...

"We seem to be unaware of the real value of [this] baptismal site on our Jordanian soil; it is the third holiest place for Christians throughout the world... There is no choice but to launch campaigns [supported by] the government and the church, aimed at marketing this site, not as an archeological or tourism site but as an important religious site where the Christian faith was born..."[10]

Cartoon in Jordanian Daily

On right: "Site of Christ's baptism"; on left: "Site of baptism in Palestinian blood" [11]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), July 27, 2011.

[2], August 1, 2011.

[3], July 30, 2011.

[4] Al-Dustour (Jordan), August 4, 2011.

[5], August 1, 2011.

[6] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), August 1, 2011.

[7] Al-Dustour (Jordan), August 7, 2011; Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), August 17, 2011;, July 16, 2011.

[8] Al-Rai (Jordan), August 1, 2011.

[9] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), August 2, 2011.

[10] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), August 3, 2011.

[11] Al-Ghad (Jordan), August 5, 2011.

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