Pope Francis Will Soon Be Embracing the Poor Again, on the Banks of the Jordan

(Amman) – We are in the place that Pope Francis has chosen to embrace, in Jordan, the small and humble: Bethany beyond the Jordan, the site of the Baptism of Jesus. Here, on 24th May, in the as yet unfinished church of the Baptism of Jesus (of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem) Bergoglio will meet 450 people with great needs: refugees from Syria and Iraq, poor families, orphans and the disabled. Especially children. From the church he will then go towards the nearby bank of the River Jordan where – as Pope Paul VI did before him, in 1964 – he will spend a few moments in prayer.

Visiting it now, the church looks like a building site. If the outer structure is completed, work on the interior has only just begun. No stained glass windows, no altar, wooden scaffolding against the walls and bags of cement on the floor.

The Catholics of Jordan are particularly attached to the site of the Baptism. John the Baptist is their patron saint and in January, on the feast day of the Baptism of Jesus, they come in their thousands to Bethania Beyond the Jordan. On 10th January last, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Monsignor Fouad Twal, celebrated the feast day here, with thousands of faithful who had come not only from Jordan but also from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. It was a special occasion also because Pope Francis had announced his visit to the Holy Land to the world a few days earlier, on 5th January. And it was in Bethania Beyond the Jordan that Patriarch Twal hoped that the pilgrimage by Francis could be transformed into an “invocation of peace”, in particular for Israel and Palestine.

“This is the second year that Patriarch Twal has celebrated the feast of the baptism of the Lord in the unfinished church,” says Charles Glain, a French architect and operations manager of the site. “Here the people are really waiting for the church to be consecrated at long last, because of the special meaning that this place has for them.”

Once completed, the church of the Baptism of Jesus could become one of the most visited placed in the Holy Land, at least for the circuit of Catholic pilgrims and the local faithful. The holy building will be able to hold about one thousand worshippers and the large square cloisters opposite it, at least two thousand. On both sides of the transept two monasteries have been built, for two monastic communities, one male and one female, of the congregation of the Incarnate Word. Each of the monasteries can accommodate 30 pilgrims on retreats. The apse of the church is no more than thirty metres from the Jordan River. Behind the apse, in the open air, a large baptismal bath has been built, for community celebrations, connected to the river by a small channel. Near the church, a large welcome centre for pilgrims has been planned, with a restaurant, theatre, museum, souvenir shops (click here for an animated video of the project).

Unfortunately, due to the lack of funds, it is not yet possible to say when the church will be finished. Osama Madanat, Director General of Al Dawliyah for Hotels and Malls P.L.C., who is following the works, explains that “the total cost of the project is around $10-12 million of which half has already been spent. We originally thought that the project would have attracted sponsors from all over the world; the Patriarchate paid for a part of the expenses. Nadim Muasher, owner of Al Dawliyah, to whom we owe the original idea of the church and who has always wanted to be able to build it, with his family and his companies, has contributed something in the region of 3 million Jordanian dinars (about $ 4.5 million). We hope that thanks to the visit of the Pope, the funds necessary to complete the project can be obtained. Every donation is warmly welcomed.”

The Latin Church of the Baptism of Jesus is not the only one being built on the banks of the Jordan, in Bethania: right next to it, a large building of the Russian Orthodox Church has been built, which towers above the landscape with its golden onion-shaped domes. Not far away, an Armenian church and a Coptic church are still being built.

(text and photos di Carlo Giorgi, correspondent | April 29, 2014)
The site of the Baptism of Jesus
a resource for Jordan

The large area known as Bethania Beyond the Jordan – or also Wadi al-Kharrar, or Site of the Baptism (of Jesus) – is a national park of the Kingdom of Jordan. This resource is administered by a special commission chaired by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad who, as well as being a member of the Royal Household, is also an advisor to King Abdallah II for cultural and religious affairs.

The park was established to preserve the place as it was in the time of Jesus, but also to make it an important destination for pilgrims from all over the world. In other words, the site is considered one of the most important national resources for the tourism sector.

In the light of these aspects, about ten years ago, the Hashemite sovereign decided to offer plots of land in the park free of charge to the various Christian denominations so that they could build new religious buildings (sanctuaries, monasteries, houses for hospitality for pilgrims). Each of the assignees built their own facilities at their own expense r finding the necessary funding.

When the project is completed, about a dozen new places of worship should stand in the park.