ON THE BANKS OF JORDAN RIVER, ISRAEL — The first thing most pilgrims to the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site notice are the gilded crosses atop the Orthodox Church of John the Baptist across the river in Jordan.
Few seem to take notice of the barbed wire fence on each side of the dusty path leading to the baptismal site. Yellow metal signs every few feet, alert pilgrims and tourists against straying from the path.
“DANGER MINES!” the signs warn in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Then, as they get closer, they see the Jordan River itself. Considering its great role in the Bible and in the ministry of Jesus in particular, many are surprised to find little more than a stream just a few feet wide. Concrete steps lead down to the water where pilgrims, many in white robes, renew their baptismal vows by immersing in its opaque green waters.
According to the Christian faith, this is where Jesus was baptized. It is considered the third most holy site in the Holy Land, after the Nativity Grotto in Bethlehem and Golgotha in Jerusalem.
Directly across from the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site is a similar site in Jordan. Last weekend as part of Pope Francis’s first trip to the Holy Land, he visited the site in Jordan, bringing attention and a fair amount of increased tourism to the country. Pilgrims enter the water on both banks as armed soldiers – Jordanian on one side, Israeli on the other – keep a watchful eye. There is netting in the middle of the river to keep pilgrims from swimming across.
Located east of the town of Jericho, Qasr al-Yahud sits on land that was captured by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967. Since then it was considered a closed military zone, open only through advance coordination and with a military escort. The baptismal site on the Israeli side opened to daily visitors in the summer of 2011.
The landmines are remnants of the 1967 war. Much like the rest of the estimated 1.5 million landmines and unexploded ordnance in the Holy Land today, they are also harsh reminder of the current political climate of the Holy Land. That political climate is never far removed from the sacred sites.
Among the groups visiting Qasr al-Yahud this spring was one lead by Archdeacon Peter Hill of Nottingham Church, England. Hill has been bringing Christian pilgrims from England for many years. This was his first time at the Qasr al-Yahud site.
“For those that haven’t been (to the Holy Land) before it’s something very challenging to understand why there’s such division between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “We’ve just traveled through the West Bank and there’s a stark difference from when you’re in the West Bank to when you’re here.”
Hill was referring, in part, to the separation wall that divides the Israeli-occupied territories and the West Bank territories. He was also speaking of the travel restrictions that Israel imposes on Palestinians Christians who live in Palestine. “Today I think there’s just a very sad and horrendous situation,” he said. “There is injustice all around. I see our Palestinian Christian (Roman Catholic) guide; I hear his story and he has a faith despite all the things that he’s had to put up with.”
Of the three Abrahamic religions represented in Israel, Christianity is the smallest, representing about 2 percent of Israel population, approximately 150,000 people. In Palestine, 8 percent of the total population of the West Bank and less than 1 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip are Christian; approximately 210,000 and 12,000 people respectively, based on current population figures. In both Israel and Palestine, the vast majority of these Christians are ethnic Arabs. In Israel, for example, 80 percent of all Christians are Arab born.
But while Christians are a tiny minority, they constitute a majority of the tourists to Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, a record 3.54 million tourists came to Israel in 2013. Just slightly more than half of the tourists were Christian – and half of that number were Catholic. For Christian tourists in the Holy Land, a visit to the birthplace of Jesus, in Bethlehem is as obligatory as visiting Jerusalem, the site of his crucifixion and resurrection. Tourism drives Bethlehem’s economy.
Separated by only a few kilometers, Bethlehem and Jerusalem feel like they are worlds apart. Linked by biblical history, today the two cities are estranged by a wall. The Israeli government forbids its own citizens to cross the wall into any Palestinian controlled areas, while Palestinians need to apply for temporary permits to enter Israel.
Access to holy sites is just one of the many difficulties facing Palestinian Christians. Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have different residency cards, and traveling back and forth necessitates a permit that’s hard to get. On either sides of the Green Line, Christians confront the same conditions of systematic racial discrimination as Muslims under occupation; political discrimination, lack of employment, restrictions on freedom of movement. Residency policies also divide families. Reportedly, there are some 200 Christian families split between the West Bank and Jerusalem.
And in a recent strategic move, the Knesset approved a controversial law that legally distinguishes between local Christians and the bulk of the Arabic-speaking population, which is primarily Muslim. According to its sponsor, the purpose of the law is to distinguish between Muslim and Christian Arab citizens and to heighten the involvement of Christians in Israeli society.
But while the Israeli government may seek to divide Muslim and Christian Arabs, the two groups do their best to advance a united front. Sami Awad, the executive director of the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit organization, grew up in Bethlehem and makes no distinctions between Muslims and Christians when he talks about the struggles of Palestine. As a result of their Arab ethnicity, Christians in the Holy Land, on both sides of the separation wall, find themselves more closely aligned with Muslim Palestinians than with Israeli Jews.
“I grew up in a Palestinian environment in the seventies, where that concept of armed resistance deliberation and movement was quite popular, not just here but globally. That was the culture we grew up in,” he said. “Every Israeli no matter who they were, was defined as either soldiers or settlers. Soldiers and settlers had guns; soldiers and settlers had weapons. They hated us and we were supposed to hate them. That was the struggle. They occupied us, they controlled us and we were to resist them.”
The conflict, as it stands, means that the majority of Palestinian Christians, who reside in the birthplace of Jesus, are unable to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the holiest sites in Christianity, or the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site.
Standing at the edge of the river, Archdeacon Hill dips his right hand into the water and draws a cross on the forehead of a man from his group, as he blesses him.
“Michael, I sign you with a cross here at the River Jordan. On this day you renew your baptism. Jesus says: Michael, follow me. Amen.”
A few feet along the river, one group of pilgrims dressed in baptismal robes that look like oversized white t-shirts, emerges from the river as another group lines up to go in. Once the pilgrims have renewed their faith with a dip in the holy water, modern facilities such as showers, a separate space for prayers and a souvenir shop await them, before they get back on to their tour bus. As they make their way back, the pilgrims are more likely to see the signs warning of landmines.
The Rev. Bronwen Gamble from Nottingham, another tour leader, saw a powerful metaphor in all that. “Most of us were walking straight forward and I think that’s often what we do in life: we look towards the goal or the place where we want to go and we don’t necessarily look to the side and that’s when we miss things and that’s how injustices take place.”
On a Holy Land pilgrimage, she said, it was vital to take in both the holy sites and the warnings about landmines. “When you see the signs it really brings it home for you,” she said.