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A Century on, Russian Pilgrims Flock to Jordan River

Russian Orthodox nuns walking away from the Jordan River during a rain storm Monday after a ceremony at the Qasr el-Yahud baptismal site near Jericho. Yannis Behrakis

QASR AL-YAHUD, West Bank — It took Andrei Borisovich a lifetime to follow in the footsteps of his forebears and make the pilgrimage from Russia to the Holy Land.

On Monday, the St. Petersburg pensioner reached his goal, amid throngs of Orthodox faithful on the muddy banks of the Jordan to mark Epiphany, the feast of Jesus' baptism and for eastern Christians the traditional high point of pilgrimages from Russia that are now enjoying a post-Communist revival.

"I wanted to come for so long," the 73-year-old said, beaming despite the unusually rain-laden skies over the desert dunes as he recounted how one of his forebears — he can't quite recall how many "greats" to put before "grandfather" — walked for seven months from Russia to this spot in the 19th century.

"He was an industrialist, in Perm in the Urals. His journey to the Holy Land changed his life. When he returned home he founded schools, an orphanage," said Andrei Borisovich, who only gave his first name and patronymic. "Of course, it all turned to dust with the Revolution."

Unlike the devout Russians of his ancestor's day, who risked death and disease to stream in their multitudes by land and sea to Jerusalem as the Ottoman imperial lock on the Middle East faltered, Andrei Borisovich and his fellow pilgrims made few sacrifices: They were on a weeklong package tour by air.

But for those seeking confirmation that the long hiatus in Russians' spiritual life after the Bolshevik triumph of 1917 is over, then the eve of Epiphany — Jan. 6 on the old church calendar — on the Jordan River is a place to see it.

"For every Christian, it is important to come here," said Abbess Nikodima, superior of a convent in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, who has brought groups of pilgrims annually for the Epiphany rite on the Jordan since 1994.

It is also a trend that Israel, whose army very visibly controls the West Bank of the river, is keen to encourage as it looks to capitalize on religion to bolster tourism numbers.

"We are fewer this year, because of the recession," Nikodima said, as her 30-member flock of Russians and Ukrainians jostled with visiting Greeks and Romanians, as well as local Palestinian Christians, for a better view of the rush-bounded pool where they believe that John the Baptist plunged Jesus under the waters.

"But," Nikodima added, "pilgrimage remains very important to us. It is here that we see the mystery of repentance."

Accounts from tsarist times speak of fervent peasants and devout Russian nobles flocking to Jerusalem, especially between Christmas and Easter. The nobles left their mark in the holy city with cupolas and icons that have been burnished of late as the Kremlin leadership has rediscovered the Russian Orthodox Church.

On Epiphany, aged peasants, some half dead from the rigors of the months-long journey, wrapped themselves in the shrouds that they hoped to be buried in before wading into the Jordan, seeking reassurance for the afterlife.

On Monday, dozens made it into the river from the Jordanian bank. But Israeli police made sure that the faithful on their side had to content themselves with immersing shrouds in basins marked "Jordan Water: Not Drinking."

As well as the translation into Russian of the "Danger, Mines!" signs that line the razor wire along the route through the dunes to the sluggish, 5-meter-wide stream that marks the frontier with Jordan, there are other indications that Israel, now home to a 15 percent, mainly Jewish, Russian-speaking minority, is putting out the welcome mat for Russian Christians.

The Moscow-born Israeli tourism minister is targeting a new surge in visitor numbers from the former Soviet Union, on top of a boom in the past few years that has made Russia second only to the United States as a source of tourists for Israel, which makes 6 percent of its national income from the sector.

On the far bank, Jordan is also developing its promotion of Christian tourism, as the cranes and construction sites rising out of the desert just north of the Dead Sea attest.

Easier Israeli visa rules for Russians have helped triplle visits from there in the past three years. The government aims to do the same for Ukrainians, despite critics who fear helping crime gangs that have flourished among former Soviet immigrants.

For the Christians on the Jordan on Monday, the important thing was just to be there. Many could not even see the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem release a dove of peace or plunge a cross into the sacred water in celebration of Epiphany.

"It is just good to be in the Holy Land," said one Moscow pensioner who did not want to give her name.

"Now, no one forbids us to pray," she said, gesturing as if firing a rifle to depict the fate that some Christians feared under communism.

"Now the pilgrim's way is open again."

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