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For nearly 50 years, Wadi el Kharrar served as a highly militarized border zone — littered with land mines — between the Israeli–occupied Palestinian West Bank and Jordan. Only after Israel and the kingdom entered into a peace treaty in 1994 did the Jordanian authorities de–militarize, de–mine and open up the area to experts. Then in 1997, Dr. Waheeb’s team of archaeologists conducted a survey of the site. Recognizing the religious importance of the valley, the Hashemite royal family soon launched an ambitious plan to develop it as a major destination for pilgrims. Unlike other religious sites, however, they decided to preserve the Wadi el Kharrar as a naturalist park rimmed with modern churches and pilgrimage facilities. The plans to restore the baptismal site belong to the royals’ larger goals of preserving Jordan’s rich religious patrimony and making it a destination of choice for pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The Baptism Site Commission, a nonprofit organization headed by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, currently manages the area. That a member of the Hashemite family is responsible for the Christian holy site should come as no surprise. Since the kingdom’s establishment in the 20th century, the Hashemites have enforced a strict policy of religious tolerance. Jordan’s constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, providing for the rights of Christians in particular to build churches and participate in civic life, including the governance of the nation.

Since Al Qaeda’s attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., Madrid and London, the Hashemites have responded to the rise of Islamic extremism by leading efforts to promote interreligious understanding. In 2004, King Abdullah II brought together some of the world’s foremost Islamic scholars to draft the “Amman Message,” a powerful statement calling for peace and unity in the Muslim world and the rejection of violence in the name of Islam. In 2007, Prince Ghazi convened another group of Islamic scholars to affirm shared Christian and Muslim principles. The resulting document, “A Common Word Between Us and You,” subsequently served as the basis for a number of interfaith efforts, including an annual international interfaith harmony week, adopted by the United Nations last October.

The Hashemite family also supports local and international activities promoting peace and interreligious understanding, particularly through the Royal Aal al–Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought. Chaired by Prince Ghazi, the institute hosts interfaith conferences, assists the work of other interfaith organizations and honors religious leaders who champion peace and tolerance. During his 2009 visit to Jordan, Pope Benedict XVI offered his gratitude to the royal family for its many efforts to promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

“We’re very lucky here in Jordan to be part of these initiatives, which are very important,” says Melkite Greek Catholic Father Nabil Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, a nongovernmental organization that promotes interfaith harmony through conferences, workshops and local activities.

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Tags: Jordan Christian-Muslim relations Pilgrimage/pilgrims Tourism