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“Our society in Jordan has been changed by the fact that there is a legacy of moderation, but at the same time the Hashemites have always respected the Christian faith,” he continues. “Looking around me, I see a good model for coexistence of Muslims and Christians.”

For the Hashemites — and all Jordanians — the rediscovery and development of Bethany Beyond the Jordan offers an example of the nation’s longstanding commitment to peace and interreligious coexistence, as well as a potentially lucrative economic venture that would strengthen cooperation. When Christian pilgrims visit the baptismal site, they experience a Muslim country committed to peace and values, one that respects believers of all faiths. Sites such as Bethany draw ordinary, devout believers who come away both spiritually renewed and hopefully better informed about and more tolerant of their Muslim hosts.

“I don’t think most people are interested in interfaith dialogue on the level of the theologians,” explains Father Haddad. “They’re interested in seeing their faith being practiced every day.”

Though opened to the public in 2002, the park that includes Bethany Beyond the Jordan remains under construction. The Baptism Site Commission oversees all new developments in and around the park to ensure that its natural environment and its sanctity are preserved. According to Rustom Mkhjian, the commission’s assistant director, the ultimate goal is to restore the area as a place for spiritual contemplation.

“We concentrate first on one issue, and that is not to destroy the wilderness of John the Baptist; to present the site as John and Jesus saw it,” adds Mr. Mkhjian. “Many religious and biblical sites have turned into touristic sites; that’s what we don’t want.”

As part of its commitment to restoration and conservation, the commission requires that all modern structures be at least 220 yards from the remains of the ancient churches. Most recently, the commission has acquired a neighboring plot of land, on which it intends to work with local developers to build a pilgrims’ village. Plans include a handful of simple, affordable hotels, in contrast to luxury resorts such as those nearby on the Dead Sea.

The first contemporary church in the park was built by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the preeminent church of the Holy Land. Currently, three other churches are under construction, including a $15 million Roman Catholic church the pope blessed during his visit to the Holy Land in 2009. In the coming years, the commission anticipates a total of 11 churches. Nearly finished are a Russian Orthodox pilgrimage house and a Greek Orthodox monastery. And the park’s newly completed conference center has already hosted its first event, a round table discussion between Christian and Muslim theologians organized by the Aal al–Bayt Institute and the Eugen Biser Foundation.

The commission also envisions offering guided tours and plans to keep the park open through the night, allowing pilgrims lodging on its grounds to visit ancient sites as they please, attend midnight prayer services and walk the same footpaths taken by saints and prophets.

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Tags: Jordan Christian-Muslim relations Pilgrimage/pilgrims Tourism