Journalist finds Christ's peace in Jordan
By ELIZABETH WELLS
Special to The Catholic Voice
At this time of year, all eyes turn toward the Holy Land. As a people of faith, we remember Jesus' birth, death and resurrection. It is a time for retelling the stories of his life and that of the lives of the prophets who proclaimed his coming. We also remember their messages of peace.
Most people think of the Holy Land as Israel, but Jordan, its sister to the east, is rich in culture and history, especially biblical history.
Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to spend 10 days traveling Jordan with a small group of journalists.
We covered the length of the country, visiting sites ranging from cosmopolitan Amman to the ruins of Umm Quis in the north to Wadi Rumm, a desert in the south with its thriving Bedouin population.
It gave insight into the stark contrasts of both the land and her people. Its rich history offers a more complete picture of our spiritual past in a broader Holy Land.
During the time of the prophets and the early church, people moved freely through and between what is now known as Israel and the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. This allowed biblically significant events to happen on both sides of the Jordan River.
Many of the prophets spent time in the south Jordan Valley. We visited Mount Nebo, the place from which the Bible says Moses saw the Promised Land and later died.
The Jordan Valley is visible from there. Youssef Hilo, our guide, spoke of Abraham's journey through it to Canaan. Elijah, Elisha, Joshua, even Lot, all traveled through this area, he said.
This area has been called Perea. It is Greek for the east side of the Jordan River and includes the wilderness into which God sent his prophets.
The east bank of the Jordan River was also considered a relatively safe route for Judeans who chose to avoid Samaria and the Samaritans when traveling between Jerusalem and Galilee. It was most likely the route the Holy Family took when they went to the temple in Jerusalem on pilgrimage.
The sun's glare added to the image of the long, hot trip the Holy Family encountered when Jesus was 12 and stayed behind in the temple.
This broad swath of land known as Perea is also the site where archeologists believe John baptized Jesus. It is called Bethany beyond the Jordan and is just north of the Dead Sea.
On the Sunday we visited this site, the sun had only begun its climb. The still, humid air, however, made it felt like a late August afternoon in Nebraska.
The path to the archeological site and the Jordan River, which has receded over the past 2000 years since the baptism, was bordered by neat shrubs and a chain link fence.
One of the fruits of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel is archeological work in demined zones, explained Hilo. He warned of mines still buried beyond the fences.
In this place where peace is restored, archeologists believe they have uncovered stones from an ancient church erected to mark the place of Jesus' baptism.
Jordanians consider Bethany beyond the Jordan the birthplace of Christianity. It is after all the baptism that signified Jesus' yes to God's call and the beginning of his public ministry to proclaim the law of love and a promise of peace.
As I viewed this site, thuds shook the peace from me. The Jordan River is a narrow distance between the two countries. We suspected the noises were bombs exploding in Israel.
CNN's evening headlines declared that the unrest in Israel associated with its withdrawal from the West Bank had led to Israeli rocket fire on Gaza.
Violence and terrorism were things I considered when deciding to accept the invitation from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support, and the Jordanian Tourism Board.
Those thuds were a dose of reality. In a violent world, violence can happen anywhere, but that didn't destroy my peaceful experience in Jordan.
The people's reputation for incredible hospitality was a reality. They were warm and welcoming; many interrupting their daily routines to visit with us as we traveled the country.
They were articulate about their dislike of decades-long actions taken by the United States government, but their frustrations were not directed toward individual Americans.
They were also incredibly tolerant of each other. In most areas, western-dressed women and men walked beside men wrapped in kofia, the traditional headdress, and women in head scarves, even those in burkahs.
Christians and Muslims co-exist here in peace, in the schools, on the streets and across neighborhoods.
Jordan also has provided sanctuary to its neighbors who have fled violence and wars in their homelands. Amman and other Jordanian cities have Palestinian and Iraqi refugee settlements. Hilo said they are bracing for Syrian refugees if tensions escalate and sanctions increase there.
Peace within Jordan's borders is maintained by multiple means, including armed border patrols, checkpoints and high-tech electronic surveillance systems at many hotels and some businesses.
But even this isn't fool-proof. A few weeks after our trip, suicide bombers attacked several hotels, killing 57 people. Jordanians mourned the violence that had marred their peace. Their response was to drive through the streets demonstrating their outrage and solidarity for peace.
Kamir Kawar, Jordan's ambassador to the United States, told reporters after the bombings: 'It is our hope that Jordan will remain an oasis of peace in a desert of turmoil."
In many ways, Jordan is still that place in the desert offering a message of peace.