Holy Land banks on Greek pilgrims

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'TO BE HONEST with you, I'm real disappointed,' said Demetra Spyropoulos, 69, who had come all the way from Chicago to celebrate Greek Orthodox Epiphany on a perfect day on the banks of the River Jordan.

'This is where Christ first truly revealed himself to be the son of God. People should be praying. But this is turning into a baseball match,' she said as crowds waved Greek flags and jostled black- and gold-robed clerics proceeding to the water's edge, where the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I, was preparing to take his throne for the baptismal ceremony. To his right was a large Virgin Mary icon; to his left a yellow sign warning of mines.

'As for all these soldiers everywhere, that bothers me too. There's one even taking part in the ceremony,' said Mrs Spyropoulos, pointing to General Gadi Zohar, head of the military government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, who took his seat next to the patriarch.

'This is a holy event. Surely they didn't expect trouble now. It's all happening in Iraq, isn't it?'

At the invitation of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (the Israeli term for the occupied West Bank), pilgrims and clerics of the Greek Orthodox church and other Eastern Christian communities had travelled to the site through two army checkpoints, an electrified fence and across the moonscape no man's land, which runs up to the boundary with Jordan. All the way the guns of Israeli border guards were trained upon the convoy, while other look-outs scanned the border from sandbags, piled on the roofs of old monasteries, destroyed in the war of 1967. Twice a year - in December for the Franciscans and in January for the Orthodox - the Israelis invite the pilgrims in.

'When we have peace it will be the biggest tourist centre around,' said Jamil Sabri Khalaf, the Mayor of Jericho, the nearest West Bank town.

At the water's edge the ceremony was getting under way. 'It was right here that Jesus was buoyed up as soon as he touched the water and the dove flew down from above,' explained a Greek bishop.

'There goes the dove. Is it going to alight on the general's head?' asked Damon Ploumis, a Greek opera singer and scholar. 'Such a Greek event,' he added. But the dove fluttered off into the sunlight. The patriarch and the general repaired to the monastery for lunch. And four fighter jets roared up the valley as the procession wound back up the hill.