Area around Jesus’ baptism site being cleared of mines


QASR EL-YAHUD, West Bank (AP) — Pilgrims seeking serenity during a visit to Jesus’ traditional baptism site may be rattled to discover they are surrounded by thousands of land mines left over from dormant Mideast conflicts.

But a project now underway plans to rid the West Bank site of the explosive devices, clearing away the relics of war that have blemished the sacred place for nearly five decades.

Land mines still speckle many parts of Israeli war-won territory. But the effort at the baptism site carries particular weight because of its importance to the world’s Christians and the delicate international diplomacy that was required to take the project off the ground.

The project’s organizers had to navigate a virtual minefield of often quarreling church denominations, as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials.

“To see a site that is visited by over half a million pilgrims and tourists each year and for them to come in their buses and be so close to land mines is very unusual,” said James Cowan, the head of The HALO Trust, an international mine-clearing charity carrying out the project in partnership with Israel’s Defense Ministry. “We hope that pilgrims and tourists will be able to visit this site and celebrate the baptism of Christ in the way that was intended.”

Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus at the site, a lush stretch of the Jordan River flanked by desert — Christianity’s third holiest site after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the spot where Christian belief says Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, constructed on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born.

The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Many modern-day visitors don white robes and immerse themselves in the sacred waters in a show of faith.

Churches were built in the area as early as the 4th century. By the 1930s, Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Catholic churches, among others, all had plots in the river valley, erecting golden-domed shrines and other structures.

Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war. Shortly after that, clergy fled their plots and Israel began planting land mines both on church land and in the surrounding area to fend off enemies. Israeli officials say that among the 3,000 explosive devices in the baptism site’s vicinity are also booby traps laid by Palestinian militants, as well as explosives from the time when the territory was under Jordanian control. Unexploded ordnances also litter the area.

“Israel sees this as a very important project, to restore this place to its former glory,” said Marcel Aviv, the director of the Israeli de-mining authority, INMAA.

A small path was cleared for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000 and pilgrims for years had to coordinate their visits with the Israeli military, because of security and land mine concerns.

In 2011, the site was officially opened to the public after Israel cleared a narrow road leading to the Jordan River. Today, buses ferry hundreds of thousands of visitors along that road each year, with the surrounding area remaining off limits.

The $1.15 million de-mining project, half of which was funded by the Israeli Defense Ministry and half by private donors, aims to open up access to the area for pilgrims, clergy and tourists in about a year.