In The Middle East, The Pope’s Every Move Will Be Scrutinised

Today, Pope Benedict XVI embarks on his Middle East tour. First stop is Jordan, with an itinerary that covers three days of meetings and masses. One of his visits will be to “Bethany beyond the Jordan“, which lays claim to being the place where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist.

This is being considered quite a coup for the Jordanians, who have prioritised the promotion of the baptism site “more than any other” tourist spot. Since none of the other rivals for the title of being the baptismal location are included on the regional trip, it is fair to see the pope’s visit as an endorsement of a location that in recent years has succeeded in overshadowing the competition over the border.

In 2000, then Pope John Paul II made a more “diplomatic” pilgrimage, stopping at the Jordanian spot, but also Qasir al-Yahud, a baptismal site inside the West Bank, controlled by the Israeli authorities. This latter location has suffered from a number of disadvantages, not least of which is the fact that the area is under military occupation and surrounded by minefields.

In fact, Israel found Qasir al-Yahud so inhospitable to tourism that it went and created a brand new “baptismal site”, in Yardenit near Tiberias. Yet in the last two years, Israel has spent just over £1m on renovating and preserving the West Bank site, a project intended to finish in November. The stateless Palestinians, meanwhile, continue to be denied sovereignty and even access to an area of religious and touristic significance in their own country.

When the previous pope visited, Bethany beyond the Jordan had not been particularly developed – the New York Times described it as a “desolate wind-swept plain”. Since then, however, patriarchs, denominational heads, and world leaders have all come to endorse the spot. There have also been letters of “authentication”, including one in 2003 from the Roman Catholic patriarchates in Jordan and Jerusalem. The site enjoyed an 86% increase in tourism from 2007-2008.

A problem faced by baptismal sites on both the West Bank and Jordanian sides is that the Jordan river itself has been suffering from chronic pollution problems and a drastic drying up of its supply, with an estimated 95% being diverted. For some years now, environmental groups and international bodies have warned that actions taken by Syria, Jordan and Israel threaten the very survival of a river which has not only spiritual significance, but crucially, very practical value to a region where water is at a premium.

The visit of the pope to the Jordanian baptismal site is outdone in the controversy stakes by the proposed stop-off at Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Conflicting reports continue to emerge about the exact nature of the pope’s visit to the camp, since Israel began to disrupt preparations for a papal address in front of the separation wall. It now seems that the Vatican has made moves to shift the original venue to a nearby school.

Every move made and word spoken by the pope on a visit to the Middle East is inevitably going to be scrutinised for messages, indirect or otherwise. His presence can “authenticate” a holy site, or seem to endorse a political campaign. What remains to be seen is if, or how, his sermons to the faithful will speak to the bigger questions facing the region.