Churches at the site along the banks of the Jordan river where Jesus is believed to have been baptized could reopen within a year, following progress on a project to clear thousands of landmines and other ordinance from the location.
In a statement released December 9, the Israeli government and international anti-landmine workers praised the progress of efforts to clear explosives from the holy site.
Located about 10 km east of the city of Jericho, the site is held to be the location of Christ’s baptism by St. John the Baptist, as recorded in the New Testament, and is considered one of the holiest places for Christians in the Holy Land. It is also widely held to be the location where the Israelites crossed the river Jordan following the 40 years in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. It is also believed to be the place where the prophet Elijah was taken bodily up into Heaven.
While pilgrims have been able to visit a small area along the river bank, a wider zone of 250 acres, which includes churches of several different Christian denominations, has been off-limits for nearly 50 years.
Around 3,000 anti-tank landmines were laid by the Israeli military during its conflict with Jordanian forces during the Six Day War in 1967. The area, officially evacuated by the Israeli government in 1970, includes a Catholic chapel belonging to the Franciscans, Greek and Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries, and Greek, Romanian, Syrian, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox churches.
Work to clear the site began in March, 2018, and is being conducted by the HALO Trust, an international anti-landmine charity, the Israeli defense ministry, and the private company 4CI.
The area around the two monasteries and the Franciscan chapel has been cleared according to a spokesman for the HALO Trust, who told CNA that the work was completed using armoured excavators, as well as a manual clearance team using metal detectors and magnometers.
James Cowan, CEO of HALO, released a statement praising the efforts, and committing the organization to completing the project.
“This Christmas, the HALO Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the Baptism Site of landmines and other remnants of war. Thanks to the dedication of our demining team and the generosity of the Israeli government and Christians, Jews and Muslims worldwide, we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches,” Cowan said.
“In the coming weeks we will also complete the Russian churchyard. But we cannot stall in our mission to clear every church. HALO still needs at least $300,000 if we are to restore all the churches to their rightful purpose of peaceful worship and reflection.”
So far HALO has raised over $500,000 from the public donations to help fund the clearance, and the government of Israel has contributed an additional $535,000.
Marcel Aviv, Director of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority called the announcement “very exciting and long-awaited.”
“The de-mining of the Baptism Site - a place so significant to so many - is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. The cleaning and releasing of this land, and the ability to return them to their religious guardians, is a project we take great pride in," he said.
During the clearance efforts, a team of Georgian HALO deminers were the first people to enter the Ethiopian and Franciscan churches in over 50 years. According to HALO, religious items, crockery and cutlery, and even a supply of beer were among items recovered and handed back to Church authorities in Jerusalem.
Five churches that belong to the Coptic, Greek, Russian, Romanian and Syrian orthodox churches are still believed to be booby-trapped, as is a plot of land belonging to the Armenian Orthodox Church.
The project is expected to take a further eight months to a year to complete, at which time the buildings will be returned to Church authorities.