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Landmines at River Jordan baptismal site to be cleared from September

26 May 2017


Pilgrimage: a Christian at a ceremony at the baptismal site, Qasr el Yahud, near Jericho, in January

Pilgrimage: a Christian at a ceremony at the baptismal site, Qasr el Yahud, near Jericho, in January

WORK to clear landmines from the west bank of the River Jordan around the traditional site of Jesus’s baptism could be completed by February next year, church leaders in the region were told this month.

The site at Qasr el Yahud, near Jericho, was mined after the war in 1967, and eight churches and monasteries, belonging to various mainly Orthodox denominations, were booby-trapped (News, 27 May 2016). The site has been out of bounds for decades, and a new baptism site was opened for pilgrims at Yardenit, some 70 miles to the north, near the Sea of Galilee.

Part of the site was cleared of mines for the visit by Pope John Paul II in 2000; but opening the site to pilgrims was delayed until 2011 after the Second Intifada.

This month, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined local Orthodox clergy at the site for a briefing on plans by the British anti-mine charity the Halo Trust to clear it of mines.

The CEO of the Trust, James Cowan, explained that the original budget of $US4 million had been reduced to $1.5 million; and that work could begin in September, once the Trust had raised a further $230,000.

The first phase — detecting and marking the 2600 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines across one million square metres of land, and the booby traps in the eight churches — would take six to eight weeks, Mr Cowan said; the clearing of the ordinance would take a total of five to six months.

GAVIN DRAKEBriefed: Halo Trust representatives explain plans to de-mine the area around the traditionally-recognised site of Christ's baptism, earlier this month He explained that mines were traditionally identified by detectors that monitored changes in an electro­­magnetic current induced into the ground. But, at the baptism site, Halo engineers would be using a new advanced German technology that used the earth’s existing electro­­magnetic field.

The Halo Trust was also working to raise additional funds to help the denominations, restore their churches once the mines had been cleared.

“This is a minefield,” Mr Cowan warned at the start of his briefing. “So if anybody feels the urge to drift off, please be aware that on either side of this road are live anti-tank mines. So, please don’t disappear. If you can, stay put.”

He continued: “This is a very important site for all three of the Abrahamic faiths here in the Holy Land.” While it was important for Christians, and the eight denomina­tions with churches on the site, “it is, of course, the site of the baptism of Christ,” he said. “It also has significance for the other two faiths represented in the Holy Land, and I want to talk today about recon­ciliation, which is the primary purpose of this project, which far outweighs the technical benefits of the mine clearance itself. . .

“This is not a place of human habitation. It is a desert. People don’t come to live here: they come to visit the baptism site. So you may ask ‘Why should this matter? These landmines could remain in the ground for an indefinite basis without causing anyone any suffering.’

“I think we need to think broader than that; and, at a time and place in the world where people are destroy­ing sites of religious and historic significance, to bring people together in an act of reconciliation to clear this site of such supreme religious significance would have a wonderful symbolic impact.”

The Halo Trust has been working with Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian authorities on the project. Israelis and Palestinians are part of the team of mainly Georgian engineers who have been drawn together to clear the site.

The briefing took place under a makeshift gazebo in the Jordan Valley, opposite the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s partially destroyed Trinity Cathedral. Fr Garbe Selasie, the leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem, which is based on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, told Archbishop Welby that a bomb explosion had caused the roof to collapse on top of a hermit-priest who lived at the church at the time of the 1967 war, “but, miraculously, he is alive now and is with us.”

“It is important to be here and clearing the landmines,” he said. He was praying that “with God’s help, everything will be successful”.

Archbishop Welby is one of the patrons of the Halo Trust, and he made a donation to support its work at the baptism site. Once completed, it is expected that each of the de­­nom­­inations will have their own baptism site on the shores of the River Jordan, which could be reached from their restored churches, cathedrals, and monasteries.

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