You wouldn’t know it but it’s one of the most sacred places on earth for billions of Christians. The entire area has been off limits for a half century and no one has set foot in one of the seven Churches representing various denominations built to commemorate the site.
Barbed wire fences carry warning signs in Arabic, Hebrew and English warning would-be visitors that there are mines in the area and unexploded artillery shells and the churches— most are booby-trapped and rigged with explosives.
It’s the spot along the Jordan River where John the Baptist is believed to have led Jesus into the water and performed Christianity’s first baptism.
Israel captured the area in 1967 during the Six-Day War and planted thousands of land mines and explosives to deter the Jordanian army and stop Palestinian guerrillas from using the churches as a staging ground for attacks.
Ever since then, Christian worshippers have been forced to use alternative areas along the river and not the exact spot where tradition has it Jesus and John the Baptist performed the ritual.
Now, with a little help from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, a British charity called The Halo Trust, has made de-mining the region known as Qaser al-Yahud, a priority.
For starters, imagine the complexities of getting Israelis and Palestinians to agree on anything— particularly over a land issue. Add to this the blessing and coordination of eight different Christian churches that have land on the site— Greek, Coptic, Ethiopian, Franciscan, Romanian, Russian, Syrian and Armenian— and you’ve added a new level of complexity.
Not only are relations between Israelis and Palestinians antagonistic at best and polemic at worst, but the rivalries and doctrinal differences amongst the Christians is well-known in the region.
James Cowan, a former British Army officer who leads Halo asked Theophilos to help bring the Christians together and the eight became one in deciding that they wanted this holy site opened again to the public.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch described the churches’ differences as being “like a cold – but with God’s help we managed to recover”.
Representatives of the different denominations gathered in Jerusalem’s Old City earlier this month to toast the deal with brandy. “I was the only man there without a beard,” Cowan told London’s Telegraph in an interview. “There was a tremendous sense of many denominations but one faith. It was a very happy meeting.”
Halo is now trying to raise $4 million to underwrite the de-mining project and will turn to various church groups, private donors and even members of the Jewish community, for the site is sacred to them, as well.
Jews believe that Joshua crossed the River Jordan at that spot as he led the Jewish people on the final leg of their exodus from Egypt to their promised land.
Of course, on paper it sounds simple— but the technicalities and danger of clearing land of mines and explosives is anything but easy.
The area is comprised of 250 acres filled with almost 3,000 anti-tank mines in long strings— placed by the Israelis to prevent Jordanian armored units from crossing the River Jordan. The area is also scattered with more than a thousand anti-personnel mines which are not much bigger than an apple but can easily blow off a person’s legs.
To stop Palestinian fighters from hiding in the churches, Israeli soldiers built their own improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and rigged the buildings. No one knows how many of the bombs are still active. Added to the mix are mortar shells, artillery rounds and other unexploded ordinance still lying around from the fighting.
Work is expected to begin in early 2017 and take 18 months to two years to complete.