The churches at the site where Jesus is said to have been baptised, surrounded by land mines for half a century, are being made safe for visitors.
A British-based charity and the Israeli government have teamed up for the ambitious mine-clearing operation.
“This Christmas, The Halo Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the baptism site of land mines and other remnants of war,” said James Cowan, the charity’s CEO.
An estimated 3,000 landlines were laid close to the Qasr al-Yahud Baptism Site in the West Bank during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War — as seven Israeli soldiers hurt by one of them were reminded in February.
Louise Vaughan, spokeswoman for the charity, told The Tablet that the work that is under way to revive an old conflict zone as a place of worship is “such a symbol of reconciliation and hope.”
She said that the poignancy is increased by the fact that there is both Israeli and Palestinian involvement in the operation, with Israel providing funding and Palestinian officials giving encouragement and advice.
The geopolitics of the region has changed since the 1967 War, with Israel and Jordan now at peace, and Israel and the Palestinians today coordinating on security. But it took until 2011 for this baptism site by the river to reopen, and even then the churches — which were used as cover by Palestinian fighters in 1967 — remained dangerous, with mines around them and in some cases explosive devices inside.
The Halo Trust has cleared mines around the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches. It will now work by five Orthodox churches: Coptic, Greek, Russian, Romanian and Syrian.
Marcel Aviv, director of the Israel National Mine Action Authority said that the operation is “very exciting and long-awaited,” and said that he takes “great pride” in work to reopen the churches. The Palestinian Mine Action Centre “is proud to be involved,” said director Ossama Abu Hanina.
Deminers were moved when they stepped inside churches and saw them frozen in time, with a pot left in a sink 51 years ago still there, beer bottles lined up ready for drinking, and newly-delivered candles that were abandoned when war set in.
The Israeli government is the biggest funder of the operation, paying $535,000 until now, and the Halo Trust has raised $500,000.
Vaughan predicted that the area will be a magnet for visitors when it reopens. “The churches are set back from the water but within walking distance, so hopefully when these are cleared people will be able to go from the water to the church of their denomination for communion,” she said.
Tourism professionals are also optimistic about there impact of churches reopening. “This will add a lot to the economy and to prosperity,” Omer Eshel, a former envoy in the US for Israel’s Tourism Ministry who now runs a touring company called The Bible Comes to Life. He told the Tablet that the benefits will be felt by Palestinians in Jericho and by Israelis in the Dead Sea region, and increase peaceful relations between them.