The Secretary-General of the Baptist World Alliance, Dr. Elijah M. Brown was disappointed. During a four-day visit to Jordan in January local Baptist leaders took him to the Baptismal site. The site discovered by archeologists as mines were being removed fulfills the biblical reference. The gospel of John 1:28 tells us that John carried out the baptisms in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” or in other versions “Bethany across the Jordan.” While traditional churches have built majestic structures at the site, a wooden structure granted to Baptists at the site was falling apart due to negligence and disregard.
The President of the World Baptist Alliance David Coffee now representing over 50 million Christians around the world visited the site in 2009. A plot of land was assigned by the government of Jordan for a Baptist structure and a sign celebrating the visit of the Baptist leader was erected at the site.
The government of Jordan donated a plot of land back in 2009 and erected a wooden structure but nothing has happened to build up that structure into a church a bible museum or any other related function.
The Baptismal site on the east bank has been authenticated by Christian leaders from all denominations and was recognized by UNESCO in 2015 as a world heritage site. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis visited the site during their respective visits to Jordan in 2000, 2009, and 2014. Church structures for Orthodox and Catholics are regularly visited especially during the month of January as Christians celebrate the baptismal festival during the first weeks of the new year.
Baptist World Alliance president David Coffee also wrote to King Abdullah authenticating the site. He said in a September 2008 letter to the King “In our Baptist faith and order the baptism of Jesus is of central importance to our understanding of the baptism of Christians. We believe baptism rests on the command of the risen Lord. We can affirm the Baptismal Site on the eastern bank of the River Jordan.”
But thirteen years later the structure and the promises have both faded. Elijah M. Brown the new secretary-general of the Baptist World Alliance visited the site along with his wife Amy and local Baptist leaders on January 16th, 2022. The brother of Amy’s grandfather Dr. August Lovegren had been a medical doctor serving Jordanians at the Ajloun Baptist Hospitals in the 1950s.
It is unclear who is to blame for the lack of progress in setting up a more permanent site at the location where Jesus was baptized. If any denomination should take up the offer or build up the site, it should be Baptists. Lack of coordination between locals and the world Baptists, the change of guard in both organizations, and unease of relations between locals and the Jordanian government are all part of the problem.
Part of the problem has been the fact that the Jordanian officials made the offer of the site to World Baptists and not to local Baptists.
In a meeting at the Amman Baptist Church the visiting Baptist leader, Elijah M. Brown encouraged evangelical leaders in Jordan to come up with a vision as to how to use the plot of land donated by the government of Jordan promising that once a well-thought-out prayerful vision is articulated Baptists around the world would surely support it, he told them.
While Jordanian Baptists have been hoping to work with their international brothers to use the land for a pilgrimage and renewal they have been hesitant to take on such a project on their own due to the bureaucratic difficulties they are facing with the Jordanian government.
In recent years, Jordanian administrative officials have refused to license a $4.5 million Baptist school built in Zarqa (all the money raised locally) and have not responded to evangelical churches’ repeated requests for setting up an ecclesiastical court. Having such a court is key to legitimizing the Church in the eyes of government officials and lessens the need of Evangelical Christians to have to depend on other denominations that do have an authorized ecclesiastical court.
In Jordan, like the rest of the Middle East, issues of personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, and adoption) are mandatorily carried out by a religious court. Some Christian denominations have such courts but the government has so far had so refused to allow the licensing of an evangelical ecclesiastical court. Evangelical officials have also faced administrative hurdles to carry out basic activities including obtaining permits for work of visiting volunteers a process given easily to other Christians.
Jordan, which celebrated its centennial, is carrying out important political reform that promises to turn the small but vibrant stable kingdom into a constitutional monarchy similar to the UK and Sweden within ten years. Jordanian evangelical churches have been around since the birth of the country in the early years of the twentieth century. Since then, evangelicals have grown with 10,000 believers attending services in some 70 locations throughout the country. Evangelical parachurch organizations are active in education, medical, humanitarian works, support to refugees, prison visits, working on adoption, and caring for the elderly.
Jordanian Baptists along with their friends around the world are determined to find ways to work with their beloved King and the government of Jordan which has been a supporter of religious freedoms and has encouraged and protected Jordanian Christian since its establishment.
In addition to the Baptismal site, Jordan boasts one hundred locations that are mentioned in the bible. Like the falling apart Baptist site, many of these locations have been ignored are in need of attention.
Baptists in Jordan are not only interested in a physical site at the Baptismal location on the Jordan river but are hoping that they can attract and engage with Christian pilgrims and tourists from around the world who are welcome to visit the country and enjoy its hospitality and the huge biblical and cultural attractions it offers.
Daoud Kuttab an award-winning journalist is a member of the Amman Baptist Church and secretary of the Jordan Evangelical Council. Follow him on Twitter @daoudkuttab