After 54 years and 3 days, the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land celebrate in the church of St. John the Baptist, in Qasr Al-Yahud. A place full of landmines restored as an "oasis of prayer". The hope of a return of pilgrims with the end of the new coronavirus pandemic.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - The Custody of the Holy Land has marked "a historic day", because "after 54 years and three days we have returned to celebrate in this place: a symbolic place, from a battlefield has returned to be a place of prayer ".
These were the words of the Franciscan Friar Fr. Ibrahim Faltas, among the ecclesiastical personalities present yesterday at the celebrations in the church of St. John the Baptist at Qasr Al-Yahud, on the banks of the Jordan River.
This is the place where, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus took place, which the Church recalled yesterday in the liturgy. "The most beautiful moment - continues the priest - is when all of the priests signed the register of masses, finally turning the page after such a long time".
Led by the Custos of the Holy Land, Br. Francesco Patton, yesterday the friars celebrated mass in the area on the banks of the Jordan River where Christ's baptism would take place. The land, which had been the scene of annual pilgrimages since 1641, came under the control of the Custody in 1932 but only in 1956 was a church built, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and entrusted to the friars of the convent of Jericho. In 1967, when the war between Israel and Jordan broke out, the area was transformed into a large minefield, forcing the religious to flee.
After 33 years, in 2000 on the occasion of the visit to the Holy Land of St. John Paul II, a passage was opened in the ground to reach the site. A decade later, in 2011, the Israeli authorities made it accessible to pilgrims and in 2018 the Halo Trust association strengthened the demining campaign, completed in October of the same year. Two years later, in October 2020, the keys were returned and the cleaning and renovation work began, with the aim of making it fully accessible to pilgrims in the future.
Yesterday, in conjunction with the feast of the baptism of Jesus, the Franciscan friars promoted a solemn Eucharistic concelebration presided over by the Custos and in the presence of the apostolic nuncio Msgr. Leopoldo Girelli. In compliance with the rules imposed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, about fifty people were present, spaced apart.
In his homily, Br. Patton thanked Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for "returning these holy places to the Churches". And he recalled the dream that "the two banks of the Jordan are at peace and that there is also thanks to this holy place a collaboration between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan". “As Custos of the Holy Land - he concluded - we are very happy that the first place to return to being a place of prayer is precisely this sanctuary of St. John the Baptist”.
On 9 January, on the opposite bank, the celebration of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msgr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who arrived at the site accompanied by the Jordanian Minister for Tourism and Antiquities Nayef Al-Fayez. During his homily, his Beatitude augured that, after much suffering, 2021 will be "a year of healing, of opening, of a new beginning, a year of return to normal life, especially in Jerusalem, Palestine and Jordan where tourism has a leading role in strengthening the economy”.
The baptismal site, Fr. Faltas, recalls was “a place full of mines, which once again becomes an oasis of prayer. It was nice to celebrate Mass, which was also attended by Israeli soldiers who collaborated with us to give us back this dear place”.
2020, he continues, "was a difficult year for everyone because of the pandemic, but for us Franciscans it was important because we recovered this site".
"This is a message for everyone, we must not lose hope for peace, which can be achieved even after some time as is the case here and after 50 years we are able to celebrate here again".
Israeli President Rivlin himself “worked hard to make this place a place of prayer. An 'Oasis of prayer' that can ideally unite Israel, Palestine and Jordan and which - concludes the priest - with the end of the pandemic can be filled with pilgrims ".