Clearing Land Mines From the Spot Where Jesus Is Said to Have Been Baptized

Christian pilgrims entering the Jordan River as part of a baptism ceremony at the Qasr al-Yahud site.
Credit...Corinna Kern for The New York Times

QASR AL-YAHUD BAPTISM SITE, West Bank — One by one, the pilgrims plunged under the cool, khaki-toned waters of the Jordan River, wading in from the Israeli-controlled western bank to rededicate their faith at the spot where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus.

The river here is narrow and lazy, lined with vivid green bulrushes and dotted with palm trees.

“It was freezing cold!” exclaimed Laura Ng, 58, a member of a Christian Bible study group from Singapore, as she emerged from the murky water in a purple T-shirt. “But when I got immersed, I felt cleansed all over.”

On the opposite bank, a few gentle swim strokes away, a smaller group of tourists stood on the Jordanian side and took photos on their cellphones.

In the days before Easter, Holy Land tour groups were arriving by the busload at the Israeli-run baptism site known as Qasr al-Yahud. Arabic for “the Castle of the Jews,” the name is said to be a reference to the castle-like appearance of a nearby Greek Orthodox monastery and to Jewish belief, which holds that this is where Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Located a few miles north of the Dead Sea and east of the town of Jericho in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the baptism site drew about 570,000 visitors last year, according to the Israeli authorities. Yet the peaceful scenes of pilgrimage today belie the area’s turbulent history as a battle zone.

The site remained off-limits for decades after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Israel and Jordan made peace in 1994, and Israel has since renovated a small portion of the site, opening it to the public in 2011.

But armed Israeli soldiers still patrol here to make sure nobody crosses the river to or from the Jordanian side. To get to the water, pilgrims have to get through a military zone, sticking to a narrow path surrounded by minefields.

The anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were planted by Israeli military battalions after the 1967 war as part of a new defense line. In mid-February, an Israeli military jeep went over a land mine buried in the sand here; seven soldiers were injured. The blackened hulk of the vehicle is visible from the road lined with danger signs.

The churches and compounds of eight denominations built around the 1930s in the area were abandoned five decades ago and remain out of bounds.

Israeli Army engineers are believed to have booby-trapped the windows and doors of the sanctuaries and monks’ cells, mostly belonging to the Eastern Orthodox churches, because they were being used as cover for Palestinian fighters infiltrating from Jordan to attack Israelis.

Now, in an effort to rehabilitate and open up the rest of the site, the Halo Trust, a British-American mine clearance charity, has begun a mine-clearing operation with the cooperation of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, working under Israel’s Ministry of Defense, and the Palestinian Mine Action Center under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority.

The project is being jointly funded by the Ministry Defense and Halo, which has raised more than $1 million so far, and it will probably take at least a year.

Despite the political awkwardness of working in occupied territory, the Palestinians and Israelis share an interest in promoting Christian tourism. Both Israel and the West Bank boast major Christian sites like Nazareth and Bethlehem, and the pilgrim trade is lucrative.

Experts estimate that there could be as many as 3,000 mines and other explosive devices littering the site, an area less than half a square mile, as well as other war detritus like unexploded rockets, mortars and artillery rounds.

“War is a way of achieving a political objective,” said James Cowan, the chief executive of the Halo Trust. “Land mines remain lethal for decades after that political purpose has passed.”

Mr. Cowan, who was a major general in the British Army, described the anti-personnel mines as being “about the size of a Camembert cheese” and the anti-tank mines as being around “the size of a 12-inch pizza.”

The idea is to restore the properties to the churches, allowing monks — and pilgrims — to return.

The work, which started on March 11 in the southern Ethiopian Church compound, is painstaking. The various Israeli units passing through left no record or maps of where they put the anti-personnel mines, and commanders who could be tracked down could not remember with any precision. Recently, a multinational team of Israelis, Palestinians and Georgians worked gingerly, using detectors and armored mechanized equipment.

“The churches have time,” said Ronen Shimoni, the Halo Trust’s program manager in the West Bank, standing by an abandoned Israeli military post atop a hill with a commanding view in the already searing heat of spring. “They will remain here after all of us.”

The expansion of Qasr al-Yahud may heat up the competition between the two banks of the Jordan River, over which is the authentic baptism site. The Jordanian side, which boasts a church complex with a golden dome, is known as Al Maghtas, Arabic for baptism, or as Bethany beyond the Jordan.

In 2012, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, designated the eastern, Jordanian bank as a World Heritage Site, declaring it is believed to be the location of Jesus’s baptism.

Though remains of ancient churches, chapels and monks cells dating to the Roman and Byzantine periods have been found on the eastern side, there does not appear to be any archaeological evidence on either side from the first century.

Matthew 3:13 describes Jesus coming “to the Jordan to be baptized by John” from the Galilee, in what is now northern Israel. An apparent reference to the eastern bank comes in John 1:28, which states: “These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”

But Qasr al-Yahud, on the Israeli-controlled side, has already proved more popular with pilgrims. Entry is free and it is close to other Christian sites.

Neil Taylor, 63, a tourist from Sussex, England, surveyed the scene by the riverbank as members of a Russian pilgrim group in white robes, available from the souvenir store for $9 a piece, sang praises, then entered the water.

Mr. Taylor said he was not fazed by the warnings of minefields and more signs proclaiming “Border Ahead.”

“When John the Baptist was baptizing people, I imagine that was pretty chaotic as well,” he said. “To see the young lady with a machine gun is a little off-putting,” he said of an armed Israeli border guard at the water’s edge.

Brenda Ben, 59, and her husband Michael Ben, 58, Canadians, both took the opportunity to be rebaptized in the Jordan River. They said they had traveled to “a lot of crazy places” before, including the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We came because of our faith,” Mrs. Ben said. “It’s just amazing seeing some of the sites and realizing the presence of God.”

Dripping wet, Mr. Ben added, “We’ll worry when the sirens go off.”

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