Although the pandemic is keeping Christians and others from visiting the Holy Land, Israel is helping local Christians under lockdown celebrate their feasts.
The coronavirus didn’t stop Greek Orthodox clergy from celebrating the Epiphany recently on both sides of the Jordan River.
“It’s the feast, the day of the memory of the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ in [the] Jordan River by St. John the Baptist,” said Prior, Archimandrite Bartholomew from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
It took place at Qasr al Yahud on the Jordan River. Many believe it’s the place where Jesus was baptized by John, where the children of Israel crossed over into the Promised Land and where the prophet Elijah was caught up to heaven.
“The ceremony this year is limited because of the Coronavirus under the strict observance of the Health Ministry guidelines, with the corona restrictions,” said Lt.-Col. Amos Twito, head of the District Coordination Liaison Offices (DCL), of COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories).
Some 800 thousand pilgrims and tourists visited the site during 2019. But the area is closed to the public in general now and the ceremony was quite different.
“Last year, for example, we passed from here more than 15,000 people and this year was only 50. We hope if everything is going to be OK that it will be open again for all of us,” Bartholomew told CBN News.
The ceremony started with prayers at the Greek Orthodox St. John the Baptist Monastery. The small band of worshippers then walked the mile-long trek to the Jordan River.
“We are doing everything that we can in order to allow the Christian ceremonies at the baptismal site in order to ensure freedom of religion and freedom of worship and especially to protect their safety and the health of the believers,” Twito told CBN News.
Israel’s side of the baptismal site opened to visitors in 2011 although the 250-acres around it — known as the Land of the Monasteries – remained off-limits…until now. Seven churches have property here.
“After the 6-Day-War this was actually a war zone and there were a lot of mines that were put in the soil in this area. As you can see the border between Israel and Jordan is very, very close-by. even less than half a mile from one side to the other,” said Sharon Regev, Director o the Department of World Religions at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Regev said that allowed terrorists to easily infiltrate and use the monasteries for hiding and as a base to carry out attacks.
“So a lot of mines were put there, and for many decades it was very hard to get into the monasteries and to pray and to do the worship,” Regev told CBN News.
Due to those concerns, authorities blocked access to most places beginning in the ’70s. All that changed after a lot of work over the years.
“In recent years both the Israeli Ministry of Defence together with the HALO Trust, they put a lot of money and invested a lot of efforts in removing all these mines and having the worship come back to the Land of Monasteries,” Regev said.
That allowed the Franciscan Chapel, built in 1956, to hold its first service in 54 years recently.
The Land of the Monasteries is considered part of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) but under Israel’s security control. Bartholomew said their monastery has been able to operate partially for the last ten years and is now being renovated.
“Thank God that the army is responsible and that we have a very good communication with them. They help us,” Bartholomew said.
Regev said Israel is committed to freedom of religion and access to the holy sites.
“ We are the Holy Land. We understand this is a great responsibility and as the only democracy in the Middle East we would like to be sure that we guarantee full access to all the holy sites and freedom of worship for all the different religions to come here and to worship and to enjoy their faith,” she said.
And everyone is hoping for a return of the tourists and pilgrims once the pandemic passes.