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(Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)
In John's Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in "Bethany beyond the Jordan" and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, "beyond the Jordan" means on the river's east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river's west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.
For about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river's east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John's Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area's use as a pilgrimage site. (Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)
Pope John Paul's visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn't seem to have the same concern -- he's coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.
If you ever visit the site and have a stroke of luck, as a group of English pilgrims did when I toured the area on Wednesday, you'll come across a bundle of energy named Rustom Mkhjian who explains the site's claim to authenticity with nothing short of missionary zeal. Mkhjian, a Jordanian engineer and Armenian Orthodox Christian, is assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission. For the past 12 years, he has been working at the site unearthing the foundations of ancient churches and matching passages from the Bible to facts on the ground. He was showing me around when the English group came up to the baptismal pool and their Jordanian guide introduced him as the real expert to tell the story.
President-elect Barack Obama hopes to reach across the political divide, but the uproar over the preachers at his inauguration celebrations show just how wide some of those divisions are in America, our Dallas correspondent Ed Stoddard writes in a pre-inaugural analysis. (Photo: Obama in Philadelphia at the start of his train voyage to Washington, 17 Jan 2009/Brian Snyder)
Some gay rights activists have expressed anger at Obama's choice of California pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation prayer at his inauguration on Tuesday because of Warren's opposition to gay marriage. And some conservatives are up in arms over openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson's role in an earlier part of the celebrations.
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.
The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama's latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master.
Did Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum with John McCain and Barack Obama violate the separation of church and state? Was it right for a pastor to ask U.S. presidential candidates about their belief in Jesus Christ or their worst moral failures? Will the success of the Saddleback Civil Forum mean that major televised interviews or debates about faith will become a regular fixture in American political campaigns?
I didn't think questions like this got enough of an airing in U.S. media before Saturday's event. The fact that Warren made it such an interesting evening made me think the fundamental question -- should there be a televised "faith quiz" at all? -- would be crowded out of the public debate. The initial reactions angled on the winner/loser question or the "cone of silence" issue seemed to bear this out. But some commentators and blogs are now zeroing in on the deeper question.