Jordan: “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” a place of peace

8 Jul 2022

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land invites visitors to the retreat center

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

Bethany Beyond the Jordan, a spiritual retreat center and chapel of the Evangelical Lutheran Chruch in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL), has reopened its doors after the pandemic to welcome pilgrims. Photo: ELCJHL/B. Gray

(LWI) - When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) opened the Bethany Beyond the Jordan baptismal (BBJ) retreat almost 8 years ago, the initiative was to offer Holy Land pilgrims a place of contemplation and respite in the historical site of Jesus’ baptism, but pilgrimages stalled when the pandemic shut down travel.

With travel being reinstated around the world, the church is now welcoming visitors again; international groups, Lutheran World Federation (LWF) member churches and other organizations, to make a pilgrimage, once again, to the sandy colored chapel that sits along the River Jordan.

Since its opening, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Church of Sweden, the Evangelical Church in Germany, and the United Methodist Church have sponsored and sent caretakers to live on site and greet visitors.

The current caretakers until September 2022 are Rev. Knut Kittelsaa and Ann Kittelsaa from the Church of Norway.  After the Kittelsaa’s departure, the ELCJHL is hoping to receive caretakers for a three- or four-year term.

Rev. Imad Haddad, pastor of the ELCJHL Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at Amman located about 45 minutes away from the desert retreat, said that the site was left without visitors or a permanent caretaker for two years. BBJ is a part of Haddad’s responsibilities as pastor of the church in Amman.

In comparisons to 11 baptisms recorded in 2018 before the pandemic, this year there have been five baptisms and affirmations of baptisms this year, “mostly for tourist agencies who called on us,” Haddad said.

“The baptism grounds are being revived and visitors are coming more and more, However, we do not have many coming directly to the BBJ.”

River Jordan

A small section of the winding River Jordan on the Baptismal Site in Jordan. Photo: ELCJHL/B.Gray

The Land

Historians say that dating back before the 14th century, Christian monks and pilgrims had come to the baptism site in Jordan, but soon after the Crusades the area of land along the river was abandoned. Centuries of wars and conflict added to the disrepair and landmines made it unsafe to visit, until excavations, research and treaties led to its rediscovery and de-mining.

In 2008, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan granted land in the historic location to the ELCJHL and 11 other recognized Christian denominations in the country for the purpose of preserving the Christian tradition of baptism. Under the leadership of ELCJHL Bishop emeritus Rev. Dr Munib Younan, and with the support of ELCJHL partner churches, organizations and individuals, a chapel and residence quarters surrounded by a colorful, desert garden opened in 2014.

In 2015, the Baptismal site grounds were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Upon designation, UNESCO stated that “The Baptism site is directly associated with the Christian tradition of baptism. The property is of highest significance to many Christian denominations as the baptism site of Jesus of Nazareth, and since millennia has been a popular pilgrimage destination.”

A baptismal font at the edge of the River Jordan

A baptismal font at the edge of the River Jordan on the Baptismal site grounds. Visitors can be baptized or renew their baptisms at the historic location. Photo: ELCJHL/B.Gray

A tradition of baptism

In 2018, there were 1,000 international visitors to the BBJ. Haddad said there were only two groups this year.

When people visit, they not only have the option of baptism and affirmation of baptism, but also access to paths for quiet, reflective walks that weave through the baptismal grounds accented with ancient, dry pools and other biblical sites.

“Elijah’s Hill has been reopened again. It is a place where human and God meet, where groups can interact with the biblical story and pray,” Haddad said.

Located on the border between Jordan and Israel, “it was a zone of unrest and there is still a military presence on the grounds, but the BBJ allows us to find peace and practice peace and feel the full presence of God despite the hatred that we may have for each other as human beings,” added Haddad.

“The walk to the waters is the walk of life and the feeling that God is with us. It is a faith journey you take whenever you visit.”

The BBJ board of directors, of which ELCJHL Bishop Rev. Ibrahim Sani Azar is the head, have plans to renovate the kitchen so that meals for large groups can be prepared onsite. There is also a maintenance plan in place to repair building damage from two years of infrequent use.

Azar invites the communion to “visit the ELCJHL and add to your journeys a pilgrimage to tranquility and respite in the wilderness where John the Baptist studied, and Jesus was baptized hearing the words, ‘You are my beloved son, with you, I am well pleased.’”

By LWF/A.Gray 

Contact to visit:  [email protected] or by tel. +962 (0)79 2972 880.

Visitors at Bethany Beyond the Jordan

In the years before the pandemic, hundreds of international visitors walked the grounds of the site on a spiritual journey at the ELCJHL’s Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Photo: ELCJHL/B.Gray

LWF/A. Gray