Against the background of an increasing rapprochement between Israel and the Vatican, hundreds of Christian pilgrims held a service here Thursday that included a prayer, in Hebrew, for all Israelis.
Under heavy Israeli guard, the pilgrims marched in procession to a chapel on the western bank of the Jordan River for a ceremony marking the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
To prayers in Latin, English and Spanish, they added one in Hebrew for the welfare of the “residents of the State of Israel, Jews, Christians and Moslems alike.”
Local Arab Christians were among the pilgrims, whose ranks also included many visitors from Latin America. They took part in a ceremony at the so-called Castle of the Jews, which Christian tradition designates as the spot where the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan after 40 years of wandering.
The service took place a week after Pope John Paul II accepted, in principle, an invitation from Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to visit the Jewish state. Talks on normalizing relations between Israel and the Vatican began three months ago.
The key figure at the ceremony, held in a closed security area that was specially opened by Israeli authorities for the occasion, was the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Places, Giuseppe Nasaro, head of the Franciscan Order in the country.
He declined to comment on when the pope might visit the country, saying he wanted “to stay away from politics.”
The religious procession contrasted markedly with the unrest that has flared in the nearby territories in recent weeks in an upsurge of the intifada.
The setting was a tranquil landscape, a unique combination of desert like terrain, a green belt along the river, and the hills of Moab on the horizon on the Jordanian side of the river.