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Relief workers pray for Iraq at historic Holy Land sites

PETRA, Jordan (BP)–Traveling in a caravan of vehicles across the Arabian desert, relief workers who had been scheduled to go into Iraq, but instead were diverted to Jordan, prayed together Sept. 5 that God would reveal to them their purpose.

The Baptist workers* who had journeyed from Texas, Florida, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina were awaiting news about what they could do to help deliver a portion of the 46,000 boxes of food Southern Baptist churches back home had packed for the Iraqi people last spring.

Undaunted by having to wait for the release of some of the boxes in Jordan to help feed the estimated half million Iraqi refugees living in the country, for two days the relief workers prayed and reflected at the sites of the very cradle of Christianity.

Stopping first at the ancient city of Petra, the 19-member team traveled on foot throughout the historical site encompassing literally hundreds of buildings, facades, tombs, baths, funerary halls, temples and a 3,000-seat amphitheater from the first century A.D.

Petra is the site of one of the high places where sacrifices were offered during the time of the biblical David, though scholars disagree on whether the city was the biblical Seir/Sela (both words defined as “rock”) where the Edomites were said to have dwelt.

According to local tourism workers, Petra is the legacy of the Nabataeans, Arab settlers who arrived in the area 2,000 years ago to develop what would become a nomadic Bedouin stronghold. Today there are about 350 Bedouin families who reside in camps throughout the region and provide transportation via camel, horse, donkey and cart rides to visitors. They also operate lively shops and restaurants at the site and are seen throughout the area selling jewelry and crafts created in their camps.

The team of relief workers sampled the various forms of transportation available at different points throughout the desert trails; some rode on camels and then switched to carts for another part of the journey, while some walked throughout the site. Several team members engaged in a strenuous hike through mountain paths and staircases to the High Place of Sacrifice, topped by two obelisks at 1,035 meters above sea level.

Petra is set deep inside a narrow gorge accessible through a 1.2-kilometer waterway, or siq, carved deep into the rock amid cliffs that are 100 meters high. The path opens up to reveal Petra’s most famous monument, Al Khazneh (The Treasury). Used in the final sequence of the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the towering facade presents a stark contrast through the high walls of the siq.

One of the workers said the journey back in time at Petra helped her to grasp how precious things like water and perfume are in the arid, dry desert, so that she now understands the biblical significance of those items in a new way.

“The message of Scripture is more alive to me now,” she told the Florida Baptist Witness.

Another worker said sometimes what is read in the Bible is difficult to understand unless a person has been in the desert, seen the value of water and realized the rarity of perfume in a place where few flowers grow.

“It is all so foreign and you cannot connect and just don’t understand,” she said. “Then you see it for real and it all fits. That just puts a whole different perspective on things.”

As for the lack of Christianity in this heavily Muslim part of the world, another worker said it’s fitting the team is in Jordan to help the Iraqis.

“Everything is coming together,” he said. “God has been to Israel. This is the Holy Land, too. The sons of Ishmael, they are here in this Holy Land, and God wants to raise up the sons of Ishmael just like the sons of Israel.”

The caravan continued to Mount Nebo Sept. 6 where team members prayed together on the mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley and also prayed and reflected individually throughout the site, many looking directly over the mountains toward Iraq.

Mount Nebo is the place where God reaffirmed the covenant of faith as described in the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. The mountain rises from the Transjordanian plateau and overlooks the green swathe of the Jordan Valley all the way to the glittering Dead Sea. On a clear day, the rooftops of Jerusalem and Bethlehem are visible. One of Jordan’s most sacred sites, it is a “protected” place for Christians in the mostly Muslim country.

Presumed to be the place where Moses died and was buried, Mount Nebo in Jordan is the location of the biblical land of Pisgah. A small church built on the spot by early Christians as early as 393 A.D. had expanded by the seventh century into a vast Byzantine complex which pilgrims passed through on their way from Jericho to Hammamat Ma’in where they would take a restorative bath in the natural hot springs.

Since 1933 the sanctuary of the monastery has been under continuous excavation and restoration by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Excavation has revealed beautiful mosaic floors depicting hunting and pastoral scenes displayed now on the walls of a modern building constructed to house the sanctuary of the basilica as well as a baptistry constructed in 597-598 A.D.

The final destination for the caravan was Umm Qais, the highest point in Jordan overlooking the intersection of Jordan, Syria and Israel, yielding a glimpse of Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) and the Golan Heights. Called Gadara in Graeco-Roman times, the city is the sight of substantial historic ruins and also is famous for being known as the location of the biblical story of the Gadarene Swine.

On the way down the mountain, one relief worker said he saw a stark contrast in the abundance of hospitality in the Middle East compared to the lack of understanding of the relationship God desires with man.

“It’s almost like hospitality is an extreme” and so much is focused on doing the right thing or using etiquette, he said, that the absence of a relationship with God presents a “paradox.”

Another worker said she is continually struck by the need to develop relationships, even brief ones, with Muslims in order to plant seeds of hope.

“There is a great need here for picking up the boulders and beginning to sow the soil and plant the seed,” she said. “We need not to be in a hurry to see the harvest. That’s not why we are here.”

Acknowledging that God works in many ways, another worker said it is good to remember that a presentation of the Gospel may be misunderstood, taken as an offense or rejected outright, but the Holy Spirit is at work nonetheless. Sensitivity to the Muslim remains a key issue.

“It is our job to be available and be open,” another worker said. “Be God with skin on here. Serve and don’t try to hurry things along. God is in control.”
*Names are withheld for security reasons. Joni Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness on assignment with the Southern Baptist relief team in Jordan.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: AMMAN MOSQUES, CAMEL TREASURY and SLICE OF TREASURY.

    About the Author

  • Joni B. Hannigan