- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

QASR EL-YEHUD, West Bank (AP) — Israel blocked thousands of Christians from making a pilgrimage yesterday to the Jordan River site where Jesus was baptized, citing safety concerns.

About 15,000 faithful from around the world planned to be baptized over two days on the muddy western banks 20 miles from Jerusalem to mark Holy Week according to the Orthodox Christian calendar.

Israeli officials said they closed the steep entry into the river, which runs between Jordan and the Israeli-controlled West Bank, after crowds created unspecified safety problems in previous years.

Instead, the Israelis filled two large tubs with river water so pilgrims could dab their hands or immerse themselves. Others used outdoor showers that sprayed water pumped directly from the Jordan River.

Israel said it told local Orthodox Christian leaders in advance that access to the river would be closed, said Capt. Adam Avidan, of the Israeli military department that coordinated the event with Palestinian and Jordanian authorities.

Still, some pilgrims were surprised and upset.

“Why are the Israelis doing this to us?” asked Milos Vidaqovc from Serbia. He said that two tubs of water would not be enough for the thousands of people attending.

Pilgrims from Russia, Eastern Europe, France and Belgium arrived on dozens of buses, organizers said. At a morning ceremony, visitors in white baptismal robes sold at the site leaned over metal fences to look at the river.

Greek Orthodox clergy led a procession from the nearby St. John Monastery to bless the water. Separate ceremonies were planned by the Ethiopian, Syrian and Coptic churches.

Despite the blockage, most pilgrims said they were thrilled by the experience.

“Thirty feet doesn’t make that much of a difference to me in a spiritual sense,” said Stefan-Igor Reljic of New York.

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