JERUSALEM – Amid a three-day visit to Israel, jam-packed with discussions with senior Israeli and Bahraini officials regarding the implementation of historic Arab-Israeli peace deals, and how best to impose new economic sanctions on the Iranian regime, the visiting American secretary of state has another topic on his mind.
Two senior Israeli sources tell ALL ISRAEL NEWS that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan – both devout Evangelical Christians – on Thursday will visit Qasr al-Yahud, a site on the western banks of the Jordan River where Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist.
An Israel Police traffic report is also warning of closures to and from the site’s nearby church on Thursday in light of the expected Pompeo visit.
Qasr al-Yahud is described by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority as “the third holiest site in the Christian world, after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was attracting upwards of 1 million international and local visitors annually.
Pompeo is outspoken about his love for Jesus and how it informs his love for the people and land of Israel.
During a Christian conference where he and I spoke in Des Moines in July, Pompeo noted that when it comes to our “closest friend in the Middle East – Israel – … my [Evangelical] faith shapes my work.”
“Our nations share Judeo-Christian roots,” he told some 700 guests at The Family Leader Summit. “Our approach to government draws on that beautiful teaching from the first chapter of Genesis: that all human beings are made in the image of God. It’s a major reason why both countries have a high respect for human dignity and personal liberty. Each of our two nations respects human rights and it only makes sense for the two countries to be so close, as close as we possibly can be. And from a pure foreign policy standpoint, Israel is an essential security partner.”
“I’m proud that there has not been any administration who has supported Israel in the way that President Trump and our administration has done,” Pompeo said to tremendous applause. “We moved our embassy to Jerusalem. We said that the Golan Heights is a part of Israel. We now have released a Vision For Peace that recognizes reality on the ground, the Biblical truth in that special place.”
RIVLIN’S LIFE MISSION: IMPROVE QASR AL-YAHUD TO ADVANCE PEACEIsraeli President Reuven Rivlin has taken a great personal interest in dramatically accelerating the development of the Qasr al-Yahud location.
He is encouraging historic Christian denominations to build new churches there.
He also wants to expand the site’s facilities to be able to handle far more visitors.
Last week, two of Rivlin’s senior advisors briefed ALL ISRAEL NEWS on the extraordinary amount of work he has done on the project.
They told me one of Rivlin's “life missions” is to improve the Israeli site and to jointly develop a plan with the Jordanian government whereby visitors on the Israeli side could cross a bridge over the river to tour the Jordanian side, and vice versa.
The plan would involve creating a “security bubble” around the Israeli and Jordanian national parks to protect them from terror attacks.
It would also involve improving the quality of the water of the Jordan River, which is much clearer in the north but becomes quite murky and polluted near the baptism sites.
Over the past two years, Rivlin has had discreet conversations with the Jordanians on how best to move forward.
The Israeli president believes the project can advance peace between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
Palestinian involvement, he believes, is vital to the idea’s success, in part because the site is not far from the city of Jericho.
The Israeli president has met twice with Pope Francis to get his blessing on expanding and improving Qasr al-Yahud.
He has invited the Pope to visit, and the pontiff has agreed to come as soon as the coronavirus crisis has lifted.
WHERE IS THE EXACT LOCATION OF JESUS’ BAPTISM?Lending credence to the view that Qasr al-Yahud is – or near – the actual baptism site of Jesus, archaeologists have found remains of ancient churches on the Israeli dating back to the 5th century at the site.
Other historians, however, believe that the actual location of Jesus’ baptism was on the east bank of the Jordan River.
Archaeologists have excavated what they believe is ancient Bethany on the east side, along with the remains of at least five ancient churches.
In light of this, Jordan’s King Abdullah II established a national park on the east bank to commemorate the site and honor the importance of Jesus both to Christians and to Muslims.
In May 2009, Pope Benedict visited the site with King Abdullah.
In 2015, UNESCO has named the Jordanian location a “World Heritage Site.”
In February 2016, Pope Francis made a pilgrimage to the Jordanian site.
In the New Testament – specifically in the Gospel of John – the Apostle John mentions the location of John the Baptist’s ministry as a village called “Bethany beyond the Jordan” (John 1:28).
Since the geographical point of reference for biblical writers was typically Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” meant the east side of the river.
A SITE RICH IN HISTORY AND MORE TOURIST POTENTIALQasr al-Yehud is Arabic for Castle or Tower of the Jews, named after the fortress-like structure of the nearby monastery.
“You can practically touch the visitors being baptized on the Jordanian side of the river,” Elisa Moed, CEO of Travelujah, told ALL ISRAEL NEWS.
“On the Feast of the Epiphany, thousands of Orthodox Christians visit the site. It is a hugely impressive march and very colorful and celebratory,” Moed said. “It is also believed to be the site where the Israelites crossed over from Jordan to the land of Israel” (Joshua 3:11-17).
Pilgrims from Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds frequented the location until it was closed after the Six-Day War in 1967.
It was reopened in 2011.
Until then, most tourists to Israel visited the baptism site known as Yardenit, which is further north along the Jordan.
The water at Yardenit is more clear and the site more developed with amenities, but Qasr al-Yahud is accessible as a day trip from Jerusalem.
“Qasr al-Yahud has a much more authentic feel,” Moed said. “It is just a few meters from Bethany in the Jordan, the Jordanian baptismal site. There are several monasteries surrounding Qasr al-Yahud as well, including in the Jordanian side which is only a few meters to the east.”
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.