After almost 50 years, the site where Jesus is thought to have been baptized is slated to reopen once the final landmines are cleared from the region.
The Israeli government released a statement on December 9, 2018 announcing its work with international anti-mine experts is nearly finished. The head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s National Mine Action Authority, Marcel Aviv, stated he hopes the task is completed by December of next year.
The sacred site is situated approximately 10 kilometers east of Jericho. It’s believed to be the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus as recorded in the New Testament. The site is considered to be one of the holiest places for Christians in Israel. It’s also thought to be the location where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River after spending 40 years in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt. This same location is held to be the spot where the prophet Elijah was taken bodily into Heaven.
Pilgrims have been able to visit a minute area along the Jordan River bank. However, a more substantial area of 250 acres, which consists of multiple different churches representing numerous Christian denominations, has been unvisitable for nearly five decades. In 1967, the Israeli military set almost 3,000 anti-tank landmines amidst the country’s struggle with Jordanian militants during the Six Day War. Israel’s government officially evacuated the region in 1970. The area contains Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monasteries, a Catholic chapel belonging to the Franciscans, and Coptic, Greek, Romanian, Russian, and Syrian Orthodox churches.
The arduous task of clearing the area of the landmines started in March of this year. The HALO Trust, an international anti-landmine charity, the private company 4CI, and Israel’s defense ministry are completing the work. A spokesman for the HALO Trust informed the Catholic News Agency that the area around the Franciscan chapel and the two monasteries has been cleared. This individual stated that the job was done utilizing armoured excavators and a manual clearance team who used magnometers and metal detectors.
The CEO of HALO Trust, James Cowan, issued a statement praising the work and committing the organization to finish the important 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,” he said. “Thanks to the dedication of our de-mining 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.”
He went on to add, “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.”
At this point, HALO has collected more than $500,000 through public donations to help pay for the clearance. Israel’s government has contributed an additional $535,000 to the cause. Aviv referred to the announcement as “very exciting and long awaited.” The head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s National Mine Action Authority commented, “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.”
While completing clearance tasks, HALO de-miners from the country of Georgia became the first people to enter the Franciscan and Ethiopian churches in more than 50 years. HALO reported that religious items, cutlery, and crockery were among objects found and returned to Church authorities in Jerusalem. Greater than 800,000 people visited the area where the baptismal site is located in 2018. Included in this number was Agneiszka Witek, a Polish pilgrim making her first trek to the Holy Land. As she surmised the baptismal site along the banks of the Jordan River, Witek commented to The Times of Israel, “This is such a special place to be as a Christian.” Aviv feels the number of people visiting the sacred site will triple after all the churches gain unrestricted access to their buildings.
~ 1776 Christian