BETHANY BEYOND THE JORDAN - When Pope Benedict stops to pray at a pool of still green water here on Sunday, his visit will bolster the case that Jesus was baptized at this spot on the east bank of the Jordan River.
The exact location is unclear and a rival spot across the narrow muddy river has long claimed to be the place where John the Baptist and Jesus met for the cleansing ritual.
But for over a decade now, Jordanian experts have unearthed ruins of ancient churches amid the tamarisk trees here and found early pilgrims' writings about the site. Christian denominations have begun building new churches for modern pilgrims nearby.
Rustom Mkhjian, assistant director of the Baptism Site Commission developing the area, said the archaeological evidence showed early Christians saw this as the true site.
Why did they insist on building churches on this point? he asked at an observation post on the wooded flood plain a short walk inland from the river. The answer is clear. This is where Jesus was baptized.
The pope, who tours Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 8 to 15, will visit the site and lay cornerstones for two Catholic churches on higher ground nearby.
What's not done may be just as telling as what is. Benedict will not visit the rival site at Qasr al Yahud on the west bank. When Pope John Paul visited the region in 2000, he celebrated Mass at Bethany but slotted in a quick stop at Qasr al Yahud.
The Vatican nuncio (ambassador) in Amman, Archbishop Francis Assisi Chullikat, said confirming the site's authenticity or not was not the point of the Holy Father's visit.
But the local Catholic Church has joined Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, heads of world Lutheran and Baptist groups and several Orthodox leaders backing it. The star United States evangelical pastor Rick Warren recently joined in.
TOURISM AND HARMONY
Winning recognition for Bethany as the authentic baptism site is not simply a matter of local pride. It boosts Jordan's image as an important Holy Land pilgrimage site.
Tourism accounts for 12 percent of our gross domestic product, and 25 percent of those tourists go to the baptism site, said a senior official in Amman who asked not to be named. We want more tourists to come here.
Jordan's generous support in developing the site, offering land for churches and pilgrimage centers and trying to keep its dwindling Christian minority from emigrating also fits into a wider policy of fostering religious harmony here, he said.
Israel signaled renewed interest on Thursday in promoting Qasr al Yahud, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as the spot where Jesus was baptized. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was on a list of projects the Israeli leader intended to pursue to strengthen the Palestinian economy.
Palestinians have dismissed Netanyahu's stated intention of improving their economy to boost peace prospects, saying he must endorse their goal of an independent state.
Religion is not a divisive issue in this mostly Muslim country, but some analysts fear it could become one if the Christian minority, now down to about 1.5 percent, disappeared and Islam became a point of dispute in Jordanian politics.
Christian-Muslim harmony is a national security issue, the official said. Keeping religious harmony helps maintain a social and political balance among majority Palestinians, minority tribes and other groups.
Christians are guaranteed 9 percent of parliamentary seats, reflecting the size the minority once had. That level has dropped because of falling birth rates, regional instability and a higher education level that enabled many to emigrate.
WEST BANK CASE MUTED
Isolated in a closed military zone from 1967 to 1994, the Bethany baptism site was discovered in the late 1990s by experts heeding St. John's Gospel, which described the place three times as being beyond the Jordan rather than on the west bank.
Writings by pilgrims from the 4th to 12th centuries spoke of a stairway to the water and pillars holding up churches against occasional flooding. Excavations have uncovered the stairs, foundations of five churches and several other sites.
Floods and earthquakes destroyed those churches, but persistent rebuilding on the site and early pilgrimages there convinced the Jordanians this was the right location.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes, a Christian, told Reuters: According to our religion, the whole river is a site of baptism, but for the past 2,000 years pilgrims have been coming to this site (on the west bank).