Jordan and Palestine dispute Jesus's baptism site after Unesco designation

Palestine officials are in a dispute with the UN after a Jordanian site was recognised as the historic place of Jesus's baptism by the international organisation's heritage body.

During a meeting in Bonn last week, Unesco added the baptismal site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan, also known as al-Maghtas, to its World Heritage List.

Unesco said that the site, which is situated on the eastern bank of the River Jordan 9km north of the Dead Sea, "is believed to be the location where Jesus of Nazareth was baptised by John the Baptist".

The decision was announced by the Jordanian Tourism Board yesterday, with managing director Dr Abel al-Razzaq Arabiyat saying: "This is where Jesus was baptised by John, where Jesus began his ministry and the site has been designated by the Vatican as one of five holy pilgrimage sites in Jordan."

The director of Jordan's tourism board in the UK told Newsweek that he expects visitor numbers to the baptism site to rise from 22,500 to 40,000 as a result of the recognition. He added that tourism in Jordan had dropped by 36% in the first four months of 2015, possibly due to instability in the Middle East.

However, the claim is contested by Palestinians, who argue that the site of Qasr al-Yahud, located just across the river in an Israeli-occupied section of the West Bank, should also be recognised as part of the site of Jesus's baptism.

Due to military activity and excavations at the original site, the Israeli authorities moved the baptismal site of Qasr al-Yahud 95 km north to a site called Yardenit, just south of the Sea of Galilee, in 1981. Yardenit now claims to welcome around 500,000 tourists and pilgrims each year, despite the original Qasr al-Yahud site reopening in 2011.

A Palestinian Tourism Ministry official told AP that equal recognition should be afforded to both sites on either side of the Jordan and that "it's not easy for us to defend a site we have no control over".

AP also reported that several archaeological experts claimed there is little evidence for the Jordanian site being recognised, with one saying the decision has "nothing to do with archaeological reality".

However, the Jordanian site has received letters of authentication from leaders of numerous Christian denominations, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and the former Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III. In his visit to the region last year, Pope Francis also visited the Jordanian site.

Father Imad Twal, the general secretary of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which organises the Roman Catholic Church's affairs in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, affirmed that the Church accepted the Jordanian site as the true place of Jesus's baptism, while adding that the Palestinian site also had religious significance.

"We respect all the holy sites that have been from the beginning," says Twal. "From the excavations and archaeology and even reading the holy gospels, we believe that when they say 'beyond the river', they are talking about the Arab side, which means the Jordanian side."

In the gospel of John, the site of Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist is referred to as taking place "in Bethany across the Jordan", possibly indicating biblical evidence for a Jordanian claim.