Qasr al-Yahud Journal: Clearing Land Mines From the Spot Where Jesus Is Said to Have Been Baptized


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 charity has raised more than $1 million so far for the mission, which 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.”

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“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.”

Credit
Corinna Kern for The New York Times

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“The churches have time,” said Ronen Shimoni, the Halo Trust’s program manager in the West Bank. “They will remain here after all of us.”

Credit
Corinna Kern for The New York Times

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.

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