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Saturday, 8 January, 2000, 01:58 GMT
Jordan promotes 'baptism site'

Pilgrims reach out for lighted candles

By Barbara Plett in Amman

Thousands of Arab pilgrims flocked to the east bank of the Jordan River on Friday to kick off the country's Christain millennium celebrations at the place they believe Christ was baptised.

It may have been the biggest crowd to gather on the hills of the lush green valley since John the Baptist plunged Jesus into the water and started him in his mission.

Jordan is promoting the area, located south east of the capital city Amman, as its premier millennium attraction, challenging much more establisehd claims by Israel to a rival baptism site.

Offciials are hoping it will draw tourists on the holy land trail, but Arab Christians had other thoughts on their minds.

"We wanted [the mass] as a real Christian demonstration to show that Christianity is existent in Jordan," said Monseigneur Raouf Najar of Jordan's Cathollic Church, expreessiing the view of an often uneasy minority in a Muslim region.

Fiery chariot

"We wanted to show that Christianity is respected in Jordan, and that the whole world without any discrimination should know that we exist in this holy land."

Senior clerics from Jordan's orthodox and Latin churches conducted mass from the ruins of an ancient monastery, built on the hill where the prophet Elijah is believed to have ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot.

The region, once the front line between Israel and Jordan, has many associations with biblical personalities. But excavations carried out after the 1994 peace treaty turned up a divine connection.

Local archaeologists found a settlement with ancient churches, mosaics and baptismal pools. These discoveries along with historical and biblical references led them to conclude that they had found "Bethelehem beyond the Jordan", where the gospel of St John says Christ was baptised.

The site is one of five earmarked for millennnial pilgrimmages by the Vatican and will host the Pope on 20 March.

The tourism minister Akel Beltaji called Friday's service a "dry run" for the papl visit.

Pope's endorsement

"Im sure we'll be more disciplined than we are today," he said with a smile when asked about the people swarming over the ruins. "This is a trial, and we've done a great job to open the jubilee year with this great event."

The enthusiasm was contagious as women ululated and worshippers cheered and clapped. Some made a run on the podium at the end of the service to try and light one of the white candles flanking the front of the platform - a helpful stage hand eventually began throwing candles into the crowd.

Authenticity was clearly not an issue for the pilgrims. Jordan and Israel have agreed to disagree ove their rival claims to Jesus's baptism site, and the Pope's endorsement is good enough for the faithful.

"As long as the church and the Pope know that this place is also a holy place, I have no doubt to say that this is all holy land, whether it is on this side or the other side [of the Jordan River]," said Noel Daaek, who had travelled from Bethlehem and was handing out home-made Christmas sweets. "It doesn't matter we have faith and that's it."

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20 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Israel sorry for diplomatic blunder

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