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TRADITIONAL SITE OF JESUS' BAPTISM WELCOMES PILGRIMS AS JORDAN PROMOTES RIVAL

QASR EL YAHUD, West Bank -- Scores of Orthodox Christian pilgrims plunged into the chilly waters of the Jordan River this week at the spot where tradition has long held Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

Nuns in black habits, two Russian Orthodox priests carrying wooden crosses, people in their underwear and a flock of faithful in flowing white robes immersed themselves in the reed-clogged stream on the Orthodox feast of the Epiphany.

The Israeli army, which controls the site on the west bank of the river, estimated that 4,000 Russian and Greek Orthodox pilgrims attended the ceremony. The vast majority stayed dry.

"It's great for the soul, just great, although it's cold," said Anne Maniuk, a 38-year-old teacher who took to the muddy waters with six friends, all on a $1,500-a-head pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Ukraine.

"How can it be dirty if Christ was in it?" she asked.

Whether Jesus, indeed, was baptized at the spot where Maniuk took the plunge has suddenly become moot as Jordan and Israel -- Muslim and Jew -- make competing claims to the authentic place, each with an eye on money from millennium-year tourism.

Jordan earlier this month opened what it says is the true site of the New Testament story at Wadi Kharrar, a tributary of the main river about a mile east of Qasr el Yahud.

Jordanian archaeologists, with some support from Christian clerics, have identified their site as the biblical Bethany and plan to include it on Pope John Paul II's itinerary when he visits Jordan on March 20 at the start of a historic Holy Land tour.

"This is the baptism site. Other sites have not been proven as far as any archaeologist is concerned," Jordanian Tourism Minister Akel Beltaji told Reuters in Amman.

Israeli officials diplomatically say they are not in dispute with Jordan but, nonetheless, plan a $2.6 million face-lift for the site that they run to improve facilities and access to the river, now reached by a steep, concrete flight of stairs.

"We had plans to do it beforehand. Their site isn't even on the river," said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military occupation authorities in the West Bank.

Qasr el Yahud was a magnet for Christian pilgrims until 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan.

The site still bristles with tank traps, minefields and barbed wire, some of it around Christian shrines, and the bullet-scarred walls of the ruined Monastery of St. John, and was open only three times a year until the end of last year.

With the Holy Land still hoping for up to 3 million millennium visitors this year and a peace treaty with Jordan in effect since 1994, the site now is open five days a week to tour groups by arrangement with the Israeli army.

"The situation today with Jordan allows us some sort of leeway with the place," Lerner said.

Four gatherings were held this week, involving Syrian Orthodox Christians, Copts and Ethiopians as well as the Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox service was led by Diodorus I, the frail Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, who had to be pushed in a wheelchair from St. John's monastery down a bumpy asphalt road and then carried down the steep steps to the river bank.

Watched by Israeli soldiers and police, as well as a few Jordanian troops yards away on the opposite bank, he threw a cross decorated with a garland of flowers into the river -- a signal for the brave-hearted to wade into the blessed waters.

Some faithful threw in wax candles and palm fronds. Someone threw in an orange, which bobbed its way downstream.

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