Churches stand on the hill in Jordan behind the Franciscan Chapel of St. John The Baptist at Qasr al-Yahud, on the West Bank of the Jordan River. The bullet-marked chapel was returned to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land after being closed by the Israelis in 1967 because of land mines. CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Mass is back on the banks of Jordan

By  Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service
  • January 6, 2021

QASR AL-YAHUD, West Bank -- For the first time in 54 years, a Mass will be celebrated Jan. 10, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, at St. John the Baptist Chapel on the banks of the Jordan River.

“It will be a very special day,” said Franciscan Fr. Ibrahim Faltas, chancellor of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, which cares for holy sites. “After all this time, we have come back. This gives us hope for peace. For us, this is a sign not to lose hope, not to lose hope for peace.”

The almost 100-year-old church and monastery were vacated in 1967 at the outbreak of war between Israel and some of its Arab neighbours, including Jordan. After Israel took control of the area from Jordan, the area was laid out with land mines by both the Israeli army and Palestinian gunmen who battled in the area in the 1960s and 1970s. It became a fenced military zone, off limits to pilgrims.

Today, the round, second-floor open-air chapel, with its two stairways curving around either side, is still riddled with bullet holes, as are the rooms in the small monastery underneath.

Faltas said the Franciscans first starting coming to this place in 1641 and began purchasing land in the area in early 1920 to build churches. In 1933, they built a chapel, which is now located on the edge of the river, and in 1935 built a larger St. John the Baptist Church, which was destroyed in an earthquake in 1956, and the existing chapel was built in its place.

Clearing the area of land mines and making it possible for pilgrims to return has been a long process, with organized groups of pilgrims first allowed to come to the banks of the river in 1994 on the Epiphany and Easter holidays following the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan. A baptismal site was opened on the water’s edge in 2011 for visitors, who had to walk down a dirt road to the river, with fences and warning signs on either side admonishing them not to veer off the path because of land mines.

Jordan completed de-mining its eastern bank of the river by 1999. There, Bethany Beyond the Jordan is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, “believed to be the location where Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist.”

On the West Bank, the St. John the Baptist Chapel, along with chapels and monasteries belonging to other Christian churches, remained off limits behind the fences, in the middle of the mine fields. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism administered the accessible area near the river as a national park.

In 2016, Israel began clearing the area with the help of the British HALO Trust and finally in October the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and Christian churches were able to take possession of their properties.

Leonardo DiMarco, a civil engineer and the director of the technical office of the Custody, said they are planning for 100 people to be present at the outdoor chapel for the Jan. 10 Mass, with socially distanced groupings set up and a mobile baptismal font and altar at the top of the chapel.

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