Work to clear mines from the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism at Qasr el Yahud – the Castle of the Jews – has begun, almost two years after permission or the work was granted. The international anti-mine charity Halo Trust has been working with the State of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the eight denominations whose churches and monasteries have been made out of bounds as a result of the mines, to raise the funds necessary to clear the site. It was mined after the Six Day War in 1967. A path to the River Jordan was cleared in 2000 for the Pope’s visit; but the site wasn’t opened for tourists and pilgrims until 2011.
The work to clear the one-million square metres of land is being carried out by Israel’s National Mine Action Authority and the HALO Trust. There are thought to be an estimated 3,000 anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, and other explosive devices in the site.
When news of the deal to clear the site was announced in June 2016, the budget for the project was $4 million USD (approximately £2.86 million GBP). In April last year, Halo Trust CEO James Cowan told the Archbishop of Canterbury and local church leaders that the budget had been revised down to $1.5 million; and that he was hopeful that the work could be completed by February this year. Today (Tuesday), Israel’s defence ministry announced on Twitter that work had begun. A spokeswoman for the Halo Trust told ACNS that their chief executive James Cowan would visit the site next week.
Archbishop Justin Welby is a patron of the Trust and made a financial contribution to the project. Speaking at the time the project was announced in June 2016, he described it as “a symbol of hope to a region that struggles with deeply-held divisions.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury joins local Orthodox Church leaders for a briefing by Halo Trust’s chief executive James Cowan in April 2017.
Photo: Gavin Drake
Also speaking in 2016, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani, said that he was “delighted” by the prospect that the mines would be cleared. “The clearance of these sites, and others in the Holy Land, are vital for the well-being of the local community,” he told ACNS. “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.”
Archbishops Justin and Suheil visited the site in April last year, along with leaders of a number of Orthodox churches whose properties have been inaccessible since the 1967 war. The approaches to the buildings have been mined and the properties themselves booby-trapped. “At a time and place in the world where people are destroy¬ing 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,” Cowan told them.
The mine clearance operation is expected to last around a year. Once complete, the churches will be handed back to their respective denominations for reconstruction and renovation. There are no Anglican churches at Qasr al Yahud.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and local Orthodox leaders are shown state-of-the-art mine-clearing machinery during a visit to Qasr el Yahud in April 2017.
Photo: Gavin Drake
Pilgrims and visitors can be baptised in the River Jordan from the west bank at Qasr el Yahud or at 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.