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Last Updated: Saturday, 31 January, 2004, 12:27 GMT
Uneasy times for Jordan's Christians
By Martin Buckley
BBC correspondent, Jordan

If you were to climb the Golan Heights, the strategic, Israeli-held ridge to the north of the Sea of Galilee, then scramble down the far side of the ridge, it would take about 20 minutes.

Rival baptism site in Jordan
Jordan and Israel have agreed to disagree over their rival claims to Jesus' baptism site

You would come to the River Yarmouk, the frontier between Israel and Jordan.

On the Israeli bank, there is what looks like a factory. In one of Israel's farthest-flung corners, someone has established a crocodile farm.

"Why here?" I asked a Palestinian man on the Jordanian bank.

"Oh, it's the new Israeli secret weapon," he joked. "Next time there's a war, they're going to release the crocodiles!"

The presence on this border of people - let alone crocodiles - is down to the 1994 peace treaty, which has allowed demilitarisation.

But further south, the removal of a border minefield has led to another conflict of a very different kind, and one that also involves a little-discussed Middle Eastern minority: the Christians.


Somewhere on the banks of the River Jordan, Jesus Christ was baptised. Two places in what is currently Israeli territory have claimed to be this important pilgrimage site.

I first went to one of them as a young child in 1966. I still have vivid memories of a steep river bank, and my father filling tiny bottles with Jordanian water to take home to our family.

I visited the other supposed site four years ago. It has become part of Israel's lucrative Holy Land tourist industry.

To reach the river bank, I had to wind my way through a mini-supermarket lined with tacky souvenirs. The shore, when I visited, was littered with plastic plates from a fast food outlet.

Israel, with its American support and Western economy, is used to coming out on top in brushes with its neighbours.

But not this time.

Recent excavations have convinced archaeologists that a more likely candidate to be Bethany, where Jesus was baptised, is about five metres from Israel, across the river, just inside Jordan.

This former minefield still belongs to the Greek Orthodox church.

Today, around 5% of Jordan's population of six million people are Christian (the majority Greek Orthodox), though figures suggest that these numbers are falling.

This week Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, made a formal visit to Jordan. He also gave the baptismal site his imprimatur, with a pilgrimage there.

Two days earlier, I had made my own pilgrimage.

It was a bright morning in the bleak Judean desert, but a bitter wind off the Dead Sea was shaking the tamarind trees that grow along the banks of the River Jordan. I had the site almost to myself.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury

Unlike the two locations in Israel, there are extensive archaeological remains here.

From one recently-excavated church, a flight of ancient, steps leads down to where, in vertical rocks, crosses have been scratched.

The Jordan has often changed course and this is now a marshy riverbed. But this may be where early Christians believed their Christ had been baptised, and so, where they came to be baptised themselves.

It is an immensely atmospheric place.

The site's discovery is good news for Jordan's Christian minority, and even better news for the country's tourist industry.

The bigger picture

Jordan is often described as one of the success stories of the Middle East.

More liberal than most of its neighbours, it is a peaceful, and increasingly developed country. And a tolerant one.

Jordanian Christians said they felt completely integrated. A Muslim told me Christians sometimes call their sons Mohammed, while Muslims will occasionally choose the name Jesus.

"We greet each other at Christmas and Ramadan," he told me, "because above all, we're Jordanians."

Christians are starting to feel pushed towards an uncomfortable choice: whether they belong to the western world, or the Arab world

But these days, not all the Christians are so confident.

They punch above their weight in terms of political influence and average wealth.

They run a lot of the schools and hospitals. They're more "westernised".

This had not caused resentment - until recently.

But one priest I spoke to believes that events in Iraq and the Middle East are causing some Jordanian Muslims to ask, for the first time, "Who exactly are you Christians?" He says there are suspicions that Christians could be a sort of fifth column. An enemy within.

Meanwhile, Christians themselves are starting to feel themselves pushed towards an uncomfortable choice: whether they belong to the Western world, or the Arab world.

When I asked the priest what he thought of Britain's current Middle East policy, he replied in English: "Bloody awful".

He said Arabs used to believe that Britain was one country with an intelligent understanding of the region.

But its current support of America was enraging Arab opinion, he said.

He added that he hoped the archbishop would take that very strong message to Tony Blair when he returned to Britain.

Most Christians I met expressed similar opinions.

Of course, Mr Blair has had rather a lot on his mind this week.

But the British prime minister is a committed Christian, an advocate of dialogue between religions and cultures.

It will surely give him no pleasure to hear that his controversial Middle East policy may also be harming the region's 2000-year-old, but rather fragile, community of Christians.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 31 January, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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24 Mar 03  |  Middle East


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