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Eastern Orthodox Celebrate Mass at Site Of Christ’s Baptism

January 18, 1989

JERICHO, Occupied West Bank (AP) _ The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem hurled a golden cross into the muddy Jordan River on Wednesday and released two white doves to bless the site where tradition says Jesus was baptized.

During an annual ceremony at the steep river bank, Patriarch Diodoros I was surrounded by about 300 pilgrims, most of them Palestinian and Greek women. Many held plastic and glass bottles to be filled with blessed river water.

About a dozen Israeli soldiers armed with submachine guns guarded the pilgrims as they made their way along barbed wire fences and mine fields to the river bank.

Attendance has dropped by about 80 percent since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in December 1987, said Father Innocent, a Greek Orthodox priest. ″People are simply scared,″ he said.

The Jordan River has served as a cease-fire line since the 1967 Middle East war when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan. Shortly after the war, Israel closed the river bank to visitors because of shelling by Palestinian guerrillas.

Israel first allowed Eastern Orthodox denominations to return for their annual baptism ceremony in 1981. Roman Catholics, who hold a ceremony nearby in October, followed in 1985.

″The border makes me feel worried,″ said Chris Kalivas, a truck driver from Athens. ″This is not what I had imagined,″ he added, pointing at the barren desert lining the 60-foot-wide river.

″Everything looks so desolate,″ added Stefan Durst, a Lutheran pastor from Hamburg, West Germany. Durst said he came out of professional curiosity.

Other pilgrims were more cheerful.

″I’m not scared. We’ve come here to pray to Jesus,″ said Shahira Mahle, 18, who came with a group of 50 Israeli Arab pilgrims from the northern Israeli town of Nazareth.

Also among the pilgrims were Russian and Romanian nuns in black habits and black cone-shaped velvet caps.

The three-hour ceremony began with the reading of psalms and scriptures in Greek and Arabic at St. John’s Monastery.

The site, along with other monasteries near the river, was abandoned in 1970 after a Romanian monk was killed by Palestinian guerrillas, said Shmuel Hamburger of the West Bank’s military government.

After the prayers, the patriarch led a procession of 40 chanting priests in black and gold robes to the river bank.

Diodoros then hurled the cross, tied to a rope and wrapped in a bunch of basil, into the murky river. The two white doves released by the patriarch fluttered over the river before settling among the reeds at the water’s edge.

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