Amidst an expanse of desert lies a sacred place along the river that has been surrounded by danger and hazard for decades, but now there’s a plan to rejuvenate it. That place is where Jesus Christ was baptized, and unfortunately, the area surrounding it is filled with thousands of landmines left behind from Mideast conflicts.
Disagreements between church denominations, as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials, made the project difficult to get off the ground. But it’s now well underway with experts ridding explosive devices from the area.
“To see a site that is visited by over half a million pilgrims and tourists each year and for them to come in their buses and be so close to landmines is very unusual,” said James Cowan, the head of The HALO Trust, an international mine-clearing charity carrying out the project in partnership with Israel’s Defense Ministry. “We hope that pilgrims and tourists will be able to visit this site and celebrate the baptism of Christ in the way that was intended.”
“Israel sees this as a very important project, to restore this place to its former glory,” said Marcel Aviv, the director of the Israeli de-mining authority, INMAA. “We will do all the necessary quality assurances so that the territory will be totally clean and totally safe so that civilians can wander around here.”
By looking at historical records, surveying old maps and interviewing former soldiers, experts are hoping to pinpoint the mines. In case of shifts in the topsoil, drones, dogs, metal detectors and bulldozers are also being used to uncover the mines.
“It’s a challenge that requires working slowly, in a safe way and not to take any chances,” said Aviv, from Israel’s de-mining authority.
Once the work is complete, officials are hoping that reviving Jesus’ baptism site will facilitate peace and reconciliation in the region.
“We pray and hope that the clearance of landmines around the baptism site will contribute to peace and reconciliation in our region, which is very much needed at this time,” Theophilos III, the ‘Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Holy Land,’ said in a statement. “We are glad that after many years, pilgrims from around the world will be able to fully experience and venerate this holy site.”
Visitors will soon be able to make a pilgrimage to Christianity’s third holiest site and fully experience the very place that the heavens were opened and the spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove, the very place that a voice from heaven was heard declaring that Jesus is the Son of God. (Matthew 3:13-17)