[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, has spoken of his “delight” at news that a mine clearance charity has secured permission to de-mine the area around the West Bank of the River Jordan on the approach to the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.
The baptism site at Qasr el Yahud, south of Jericho, was closed in 1967 after the Six-Day War. In 2011, the site was partially re-opened with access to the river and baptism site made possible through a small track past a military check-point. But the land around the road – and the numerous churches on it – remained fenced off with warnings of mines.
Now, the Halo Trust, a British anti-mining charity has secured permission from both the Israeli Government and Palestinian Authority, and the agreement of the denominations which were forced to abandon their churches in the area, to begin mine clearance.
“I am delighted to know that mines are being cleared on a Holy Site after so long,” Archbishop Suheil Dawani told ACNS. “The clearance of these sites, and others in the Holy Land, are vital for the well-being of the local community.
“This site will allow more pilgrims to visit one of the holiest places in the region. The Jordan valley is not only the place where Jesus was baptised, it is a place where he stayed, preached and healed.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the move as “a symbol of hope to a region that struggles with deeply-held divisions.”
He said: “It is a source of much pain that a traditional site of the baptism of Christ is now a site scarred by the debris of war. . .
“At the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of reconciliation, so it is an inspiration to see Halo’s work helping communities to overcome these divisions. Everybody wants to see this land returned to use by the local Churches as a place of peaceful prayer and worship: Halo is reaching across the divide to make this vision a reality.”
It is estimated that up to 4,000 mines cover the 136-acre site; and there are reports that booby-traps have been placed at the seven churches in the area. The work by the Halo Trust will cost an estimated $4 million USD (approximately £3 million GBP) and take two years to complete. It will allow Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Syrian and Russian Orthodox Churches and one Roman Catholic Church to be “restored to their proper purpose and enjoyed by thousands of pilgrims and visitors,” the Halo Trust said. A plot of land belonging to the Armenian Orthodox Church will also be de-mined.
“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,” Mar Severios Malke Mourad, Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox church in Jerusalem said. “The Syrian Orthodox church supports Halo’s de-miners in their task, which will enable us to conduct mass and prayer in safety.”
The former Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said: “The Franciscan church has long tradition of worship at Qaser al-Yahud, particularly at Epiphany. Whilst we continue to do so today, our access has been limited due to the deadly legacy of landmines.
“We look forward to the day when, thanks to Halo, we will be able to celebrate the sacrament of Christ's baptism in safety.”
The area is considered by tradition to be the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the River Jordan. It is also traditionally considered to be the place where the biblical Israelites crossed the Jordan River and where Elijah ascended to heaven.
Following the closure of the site after the Six-Day War, an alternative baptism site for pilgrims who wanted to be baptised or renew their baptism vows in the River Jordan was created at Yardenit, near the Sea of Galilee.
Since 2002 it was also possible for pilgrims to be baptised in the River Jordan from the Jordanian side of the river at Al-Maghtas, Bethany beyond the Jordan. In 2008, Jordan’s King Abdullah II donated land at Al-Maghtas to the Diocese of Jerusalem for the construction of an Anglican Church.