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Back in the Holy Land

At breakfast at the Royale Hotel in Jordan, the largest group is men in black. Not the kind you're thinking. They have black robes, bushy beards and while some wear hats, others have what appear to be black knitted bonnets covered in stars and others wear heavy icon-like crosses on their chests. They're Coptic priests from Egypt here for an interdenominational conference of Middle Eastern churches. The other main contingent is perhaps more in line with the contemporary idea of men in black - a group of bulky looking men wearing waistcoats, part of another conference on security.

 

Welcome to the holy land, a place where three world religions were born and the secular world, nowadays, fights over scraps of parched, fruitless land. As a Syrian evangelical pastor said to me this morning, it is not the Syrians who are doing the fighting. "When the elephants fight, the grass beneath their feet is trampled."

 

I imagine the first group will be heading to the Baptism Site at some point - where John the Baptist baptised Christ in the waters of the River Jordan. The security guys might be more interested in how the Jordanians are handling the Syrian crisis. There are officially a million and a half (unofficially two million) Syrians now in this small, resources-free, poor country. That's not counting the Iraqis or, indeed, the Palestinians who have been coming here for decades. The Jordanians are struggling and look with polite disbelief at Europe's contribution to the refugee crisis so far. The Jordanians do not upbraid us about this - they are far too tactful and charming for that - but they do wish we wouldn't abandon them.

 

Tourism - vital to the Jordanian economy - has flat-lined over recent years. It is, of course, all down to security fears. Yet this is a place where you feel instantly safe. The people are tolerant, easy going, good natured and even as a lone woman I feel totally comfortable.

 

And just think what you're missing, guys! This is one of the world's most beautiful countries. It has rose-red Petra, Lawrence of Arabia's Wadi Rum (he called it "vast, echoing and God-like"), the pristine Graeco-Roman city of Jerash, the miraculous Dead Sea. It goes on....

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