Baptist leaders and dignitaries, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, took part in a ceremony at the weekend dedicating a new evangelical Christian baptism centre at the Jordanian spot traditionally regarded as the site of Jesus' baptism.
The afternoon celebration at the Baptism Centre at Bethany beyond Jordan included more than 120 baptisms by immersion in the Jordan River. They were conducted by pastors from the Jordan Baptist Convention.
Eron Henry, associate director of communications for the Baptist World Alliance, said in a travel blog that it was the first time Baptists in Jordan had received such prominent coverage in Jordan's major media outlets.
One of several new churches being built along the Jordan River where Christian pilgrims have long believed Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the centre is intended to cater to Christian traditions that practice believers' baptism by immersion.
BWA General Secretary Neville Callam, in the day's major address, called the centre "a place where people from all parts of the world may assemble for a journey and an experience." He expressed the hope that "the waters of the Jordan extinguish the crippling fires of hopelessness that burn in the hearts of those who have no knowledge of God."
Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, sent a congratulatory letter saying he could not attend the dedication ceremony but plans to make a pilgrimage there when he next visits the Middle East in 2010.
BWA president David Coffey read greetings from former United States Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom are Baptists, and presented a gift on behalf of the BWA to Jordan's Prince Ghazi.
A plaque to be placed on the building upon its completion was unveiled at the ceremony. The plaque reads: "The Commission of the Site of the Baptism of Jesus Christ welcomes here visiting pilgrims from the member churches of the Baptist World Alliance."
Also participating in the event were Imad Maayah, a Baptist and former member of the Jordanian Parliament; Toma Magda and Tony Peck, President and General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation and Nabeeh Abbassi, former president of the Jordan Baptist Convention and chief organizer of the dedication and opening.
An estimated 1,700 persons attended the dedication and opening ceremony.
Blair, now a special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia, said: "it took courage and leadership" for Jordan to allow the baptism site in a part of the world often torn by sectarian strife. The founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation said it also modelled the spirit of compassion and justice that ran through the teachings of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets and Islam's founding prophet, Muhammad.
Jordan is about 92 percent Muslim, but relations between Muslims and a Christian minority, estimated at 6 percent, are generally good. While Islam is the state religion and proselytization of Muslims and conversions from Islam are prohibited, the Jordanian Constitution promises religious freedom as long as rites do not violate public order or morality and recognize several Christian denominations.
Founded in 1957, the Jordan Baptist Convention consists of 20 churches with a combined membership of about 2,000. It also operates two schools.
The offer of a designated plot of land for a baptism centre came from Jordan's King Abdullah II during a meeting he held with Coffey in September 2007. In 2008, Coffey visited the site and met with Prince Ghazi, who chairs an independent board of trustees which runs the site as a national park. The board facilitated the construction.
"In our Baptist faith and order, the baptism of Jesus is of central importance to our understanding of the baptism of Christians," Coffey wrote in a 2008 letter affirming the authenticity of the baptism site. "We believe baptism rests on the command of the risen Lord and is integrated with his command to preach the good news to the world; and this command is given authority by his own example at the beginning of his messianic ministry."
Bethany beyond Jordan - not to be confused with the village near Jerusalem which the Bible describes as the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha - was on a pilgrimage route between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the west and Mount Nebo to the east. It is regarded as one of Christianity's three holiest sites, along with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jeruslam and Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
It was a military border zone until the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan and today is regarded one of the most important recent discoveries in biblical archaeology. Excavations did not begin until 1996 and so far more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating from Roman and Byzantine times have been uncovered.
Churches of various Christian denominations - including Anglican, Catholic, Coptic and Russian Orthodox - have been constructed or are in the process of being built nearby.
John Paul II was the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the site, making his pilgrimage there in March 2000. Pope Benedict XVI is expected to visit the holy site in May.
Bethany beyond Jordan is also sacred to Jews and Muslims. In addition to Jesus' baptism, it's said to be the spot where Joshua first led the Israelites into the Promised Land and where the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
While in Jordan, the BWA delegation met with Islamic journalists and scholars to discuss the BWA response to A Common Word Between Us and You, a letter written by 138 Muslim scholars and leaders to Christians in October 2007.
On Sunday, March 22, Neville Callam crossed over into Turkey to preach at the Izmir Baptist Church. Today Turkey's third-largest city, Izmir in ancient times was called Smyrna, a place mentioned in the second chapter of Revelation among seven towns and cities in the area then known as Asia Minor.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press