AMMAN – The government on Wednesday rejected as baseless rumours it intends to permanently close down two key Christian sites in the eastern town of Rihab.
Community leaders in the town have been threatening to step up a protest they started after the archaeologist who discovered what is said to be the oldest cave church in the world was removed from his post as director of the former Rihab Archaeological and Research Centre, which is now called the Rihab Archaeological Project.
The discovery, albeit controversial, attracted world attention after it was first reported by The Jordan Times in June, with international media outlets sending teams to examine the site.
The cave church lies under a 3rd century church and is said to have been a hidden worshipping place for early Christians who fled persecution at the hands of Romans.
Local community members in Rihab have expressed high hopes that the new discovery, which pushed their small town to the spotlight for some time, would yield fruit in the form of an influx of religious tourists, especially since around 30 old churches have been unearthed in the area.
Residents expressed rejection of what they perceived as ministry orders to bury the cave and close down the site in the face of tourists, but Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Maha Khatib told The Jordan Times in a telephone interview that her ministry is working on a site management plan for both churches to be implemented “soon”.
“Visitors need services such as a rest place, tour guides and an information centre, among other facilities,” the minister said.
Rihab Mayor Khaled Akho Rsheida quoted archaeology officials in Rihab as telling him they had received “verbal” orders from Antiquities Department Director General Fawwaz Khreisha to “conceal the sites, take down the signs and prevent tourists from visiting the location”.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that already a US group of journalists, who arrived at the site were prevented from touring St. Georgeous Church, which was discovered three years ago, and the cave church beneath.
“This is not only a treasure for Rihab, but for the Kingdom,” the mayor said.
MP Ibrahim Mohammad Omoush, who represents the area’s electoral district, said both the former director of the Rihab centre, Abdul Qader Al Housan, and his successor, Jameel Masaeed, confirmed receiving instructions to “bar visitors from touring the sites, to take down the signs and bury the [cave] church completely”.
“But the ministry denied all this,” the lawmaker told The Jordan Times.
Another deputy representing Mafraq, Tayseer Shdeifat, said that closing down the church in Rihab would be a “crime against our cultural legacy”.
Khreisha expressed “shock” over these “nonsensical claims”.
“The ministry just wants to unify the size, colour and shapes of all signs in archaeological sites all over the Kingdom.”
Khreisha added that the ministry is “simply seeking to preserve the site” by following a routine procedure usually taken in the winter to cover the mosaic floors of all open sites with nylon covered with sand to absorb rainwater and prevent humidity from developing that may destroy the mosaic. He denied there were any instructions to bury the cave for good.
“We at the ministry have plans to restore the mosaics in the group of churches unearthed in the area and to publish brochures and booklets concerning the churches discovered.”
Khreisha said that the ministry will initiate its plan in 2009.
Jameel Masaeed, the new Rihab Archaeological Project director, said he is unaware of any future ministry plans regarding the sites. He declined to comment further.
But apparently the measures taken by the Antiquities Department halted another plan that was in the making.
Archimandrite Nektarious, bishop deputy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, told The Jordan Times that the Orthodox Archdiocese had already obtained the approval from the Antiquities Department to start a project to protect and restore St. Georgeous Church and to provide it with the needed infrastructure “to make any visitor’s stopover a pure delight”.
He said that funds were already secured and preparations under way, but they had to stop everything when the department closed the sites.
Nektarious added that leaders of the Orthodox church were the very first to visit the site of St. Georgous when excavations of the church were under way in early 2005, when they held a mass and decided to support the site, believed to be the first church in the world.
Another visitor to the site, Mohammad Abu Dalbouh, said that the site is popular in the Greek Orthodox community in Russia after the visit of the Russian ambassador along with a group from the embassy in 2006. Abu Dalbouh, an agricultural engineer and a graduate of a Russian university, said he was planning to promote the site among his acquaintances in Russia, adding that all Christians in the world should be targeted by promotion campaigns.
Reverend George Abu Ghazaleh, who visited Rihab churches with his family during the summer, said: “I am interested in any discoveries related to the Bible.”
According to his biblical and archaeological knowledge, “there are several indicators to the authenticity of these churches”, referring to the inscription on the stone of the first church and the coins found in the cave, but said “more in-depth studies and research” should be done…