QASR Al-YAHUD — With the completion of an intensive multi-year international mission to remove thousands of deadly landmines, a select group of Catholic priests celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord on January 10 at the Franciscan St. John the Baptist Chapel for the first time in 54 years.
Due to COVID restrictions, only 50 priests, guests, soldiers, and journalists were permitted to attend the Sunday mass led by Father Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and attended by the Vatican Ambassador to Israel Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, on the banks of the Jordan River, 10 kilometers (six miles) east of Jericho.
“For us today it is the feast of the baptism of Jesus. We commemorate when John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River,” Patton told The Times of Israel prior to the ceremony. “But today it is a special feast because after 54 years and three days, we have the opportunity for the first time to celebrate our liturgy, the holy mass, inside our site and this for us is a very important day.”
The chapel is adjacent to the Qasr al-Yahud National Park baptismal site. Close to an ancient roadway that connected between Jordan, Jericho and Jerusalem, the location became a pilgrimage site in the 19th century with the influx of Holy Land tourism. Eventually, eight monasteries and further churches and chapels were built at the site from all the major sects of Christianity.
That came to an end with the onslaught of the 1967 Six Day and 1973 Yom Kippur Wars. The multi-denominational church and chapel compound served as a battlefield and the chapel was surrounded by some 6,500 landmines that have been painstakingly removed since 2018.
Patton told The Times of Israel that Franciscan monks have had a presence in the Levant since 1217 and have worked as the Custody of the Holy Land as caretakers of Catholic holy places in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria since 1333. Pope Clement VI officially named the order the custodians of the Holy Land in 1342, said Patton.
The Franciscans’ work guarding the St. John the Baptist Chapel was interrupted in the 1967 Six Day War, when the penultimate entry in their daily log was made. The order regained keys to the site only in October 2020. Today’s mass closed with a ceremonial signing of the same log book.
Priests on parade
To lead off the festivities, the men of cloth sang and processed toward the St John the Baptist Chapel, while escorted by IDF officers and young soldiers. The soldiers and their commanders were credited as partners in the realization of a long-held dream during the ensuing open-air mass.
The chapel is located in the West Bank area of the Jordan Valley, which falls under auspices of the IDF’s Unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and is guarded by both the IDF and Israel Police. (This reporter was checked and then re-checked at two barricades before allowed entrance to the site.)
Escorted by their armed companions, the monks reached the compound’s gates. Patton ceremoniously opened the gates after being bedecked in priestly garb by another monk. Although dusty and desolate today, it is easy to imagine a lush garden soon springing up inside the cast-iron gates.
Made of Jerusalem stone, the still bullet-riddled two-story chapel is reminiscent of a Bauhaus ship. Its upper open “deck” served as the main stage for the presiding group of priests, while the worshippers sat below — two meters (six feet) apart in two pods. In the scant shade sat a “boy band” of singing monks was led by an indefatigable septuagenarian organist who played crowd favorites, including “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
When speaking to The Times of Israel and then later in his general remarks, Patton credited President Reuven Rivlin as the visionary who pushed the Israeli authorities to complete the landmine clean-up and rehabilitate the site for Christian worship. The IDF worked in cooperation with the United Kingdom’s HALO Trust, a UK-based de-mining group that operates in 27 countries and territories around the world.
“We thank particularly President [Reuven] Rivlin — he was the one who pushed in order to realize this kind of restitution of holy sites to the churches and to develop the area for the pilgrims,” said Patton.
“Of course, this year, because of the coronavirus it is impossible to celebrate with the local Christians and the pilgrims, but you know that this is a site with millions of visitors every year and so for us it is the beginning of a new season. And so we thank the president and all those who helped us to be able to turn the page to start this new season. And today we will celebrate the eucharist in a small number because the pandemic, but for us what is important is to began,” said Patton.
The history of the chapel has roots many centuries ago, but its current incarnation is less than 100 years old.
Franciscan Father Ibrahim Faltas, chancellor of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, said in a statement, “The Franciscan friars began to come to this place in 1641 by organizing a pilgrimage to the Jordan River, the sacred place where Jesus was baptized.
“At the beginning of 1920 they began to buy land and make plans to build churches. In 1933 they built a chapel which is now practically on the river, while this church was built in 1935. Initially this was their church. The friars renovated the chapel in 1956, while the restoration work on the church began after the earthquake that struck this region on December 18, 1956, which destroyed the big church,” said Faltas, who attended the Sunday feast day mass and translated portions of Patton’s remarks into Arabic.
Plans for an Island of Peace
After mass and another ceremonial procession from the chapel to the waterside national park, Patton dipped his toes in the river. While the water is relatively high, it is muddy and unwelcoming, perhaps especially for a festively white-clad group of priests.
After another group photo, standing shoulder to shoulder with the IDF officers, one priest cried out in Italian, “Mangiamo!” (“Let’s eat!”) — which was met by hearty support.
After the festivities, Deputy Head of the Civil Administration Colonel Shai Karmona told The Times of Israel that Sunday’s ceremonial mass was the result of years of planning and cooperation. He emphasized that in addition to Israel’s removal of the mines, the churches were encouraged to renovated and reopen. The Franciscans, he said, were the first to take up the gauntlet.
“It is very exciting for us to be in the generation that we can see with our own eyes this ceremony,” said Karmona. “It’s really moving to be part of it.”
Hopefully by 2021, said Karmona, Israel will finish improving the roadways and in a further three years, he said, “we can upgrade the whole site as the president called it, the Island of Peace, and maybe we can connect the Israeli side with the Jordanian side, and every pilgrim, every Christian around the world that wants to come and visit both sides of the river can do so.”
While the warning signs against mines still hang on barbed wire fences, Karmona said they are to ward off tourists from certain areas and to walk on clearly marked paths. “We have cleared all the mines,” Karmona emphasized and in April a formal letter was issued by HALO Trust stating that the entire area is clean.
The mines had spread over more than 25 dunams, said Karmona, and were moved from place to place by the vagaries of the weather on the unpredictable river banks and Jordan Valley desert, including flash floods.
But the weather on Sunday, sunny skies and a high of 80 degrees F (26 C) couldn’t be beat for a “winter” January feast day.
“I think God is here, 24 hours, including today,” laughed Karmona.
With contributions from Melanie Lidman.
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