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JORDAN: A river of baptism and blame

May 8, 2009 | 10:00 am

River jordan It is a river of spiritual rebirth, a river of sewage and blame.

Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. Bible stories conjure up a wide, flowing river that cleanses and purifies. That’s the symbolism Amer Hafi, a religious professor, says Pope Benedict XVI wants to instill during his three-day pilgrimage to Jordan.

The trip comes after the outrage that swept the Muslim world in 2006 when the pontiff quoted medieval writings that suggested Islam was a violent religion. What better place then to find reconciliation than on the banks of the Jordan, which the 82-year-old Benedict will visit Sunday?

“Like being baptized in the Jordan River washes your sins away, hopefully,” said Hafi, who studied Christian theology in Rome, “the pope’s trip to Jordan will make the slate clean. I expect something from him to show that he understands the Arab world’s pain.”

But the River Jordan carries other symbolism too. The 150-mile river, which flows through Lake Galilee and into the Dead Sea, has been diverted and degraded over the last 60 years. Environmentalists say Israel, Jordan and Syria are to blame.

"The world's most holy river is under threat," Israel's Zalul Environmental Assn. said in an open letter to the pope. "Water from the once-proud Jordan River is being diverted for domestic and agricultural use, leaving the lower part of the river a shriveled stream with little to no fresh water and filled with sewage.”

But to many Jordanians, the river they once fished and swam in has been fouled by Israel alone. In the Middle East, even environmental sins are weapons of politics that, like a powerful current, can suddenly shift from a river’s fate to re-drawn boundaries, past wars and the plight of the Palestinians.

Writing in the independent newspaper Al Arab Al Yawm, Nabil Ghaishan offered the pope advice:

“I want to remind you, while you are standing Sunday on the sacred Jordan River bank, where Jesus Christ was baptized, by John the Baptist: This river has disappeared after the Israelis stopped the water from flowing into it, and its purity was replaced with waste, dirty water, which has tainted a sacred Christian symbol with shame....

“We send out a scream to the conscience, hoping that the Vatican can release this Christian symbol from captivity, for its purity to return. Your holiness, your visit to our country comes at a time when the region is burning with the fire of wars, catastrophe and oppression, caused by the Israeli occupation in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, and this is a state that Jesus Christ would not accept.”

And to think, Benedict’s trip to the Holy Land has just begun.

-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Amman, Jordan

Map: Associated Press

Full coverage: Pilgrimage to the Holy Land