THE site of Jesus’s baptism is to be cleared of landmines, enabling pilgrims to visit churches confined behind barbed wire for decades, it was announced last week.
The Halo Trust plans to raise $US4 million to clear a minefield at Qasr El-Yahud, on the bank of the River Jordan, said to be where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. It describes the clearance as a work “for the benefit of all humanity”.
Monasteries and churches were first constructed there around 400 AD. They were rebuilt in the 1930s, but after the 1967 war, landmines were laid by Israel along sections of the border with Jordan. Testimonies from former Israeli soldiers suggest that booby traps were also laid around the churches.
In 2000, a section of the minefield was cleared to enable access to the river for a visit from Pope John Paul II. The site was then opened to the public in 2011, administered by the Israeli authorities. More than 300,000 tourists visit every year. But an estimated 3800 mines remain only a few metres from the baptism site, behind barbed wire.
The trust has been clearing mines in the West Bank for two years, and has now secured support for clearance at Qasr El-Yahud from the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, and the leaders of the churches located at the site.
It hopes that, once the land has been cleared, the churches can be refurbished, and archaeologists can begin work. Six Orthodox churches (Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, Syrian, and Romanian) and the Roman Catholic church own buildings on the minefield, and the Armenian Orthodox Church owns land to the north.
The Syrian Orthodox Archbishop in Jerusalem, Mor Severios Malke Mourad, said: “At a time when many religious sites are being destroyed in the Middle East, the clearance of these churches by the Halo Trust offers a powerful symbol of hope.”
The CEO of the Trust, James Cowan, said that most of the Trust’s work was clearing land for farm use, but Qasr El-Yahud was chosen for its “symbolism. . . At a time when in other parts of the world people are destroying sites of historical and religious sites of significance, we want to restore one.”
A worldwide campaign to rid the world of landmines by 2025 was “at the present rate . . . not going to happen”, he said. He pointed to the use of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan and Syria, and the deaths of children — typically boys aged eight to 12 — around the world. “The need to deal with this threat remains as strong as ever.”