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De-mining started around churches near traditional site of Jesus’ baptism

De-mining work has begun to rid a series of churches of mines near the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism on the west bank of the River Jordan.

The site, known as Qaser al-Yahud, is generally described as the “third holiest site in Christianity” after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Israel opened a small part of the site in 2011 and more than 550,000 visitors reportedly visited last year.

Demining at Baptism site

De-mining work under way at the Qaser al-Yahud site. PICTURE: Supplied.

While churches and monasteries have occupied the site since the 5th century, it now features eight churches – including one Roman Catholic and seven of Eastern Orthodox traditions – which were constructed in the 1930s but deserted after anti-tank mines and other explosive hazards were laid around them by Israeli forces after the Six Day War in 1967.

The work is being carried out by the HALO Trust, the world’s largest landmine clearance charity, with the support of Israeli and Palestinian authorities and local faith leaders.

Some 2,600 mines are estimated to be in the area around the churches along with an unknown quantity of unexploded ordnance and “booby traps”. The clearance project – which a team of Israeli, Palestinian and Georgian de-miners started on 11th March in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – is expected to be completed by Christmas.

HALO is still looking to raise the last $US125,000 of the $US1.15 million needed for the project. The campaign to raise the funds was launched in 2016.

James Cowan, CEO of the HALO Trust, described the removal of explosive hazards at the baptism site as a “commitment to inter-faith reconciliation”.

“It supports the Christian churches through a practical, visible action which will also resonate with the hugely popular global campaign to rid the world of landmines,” he said in a statement issued as the work got underway.

Mr Cowan said he was grateful to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, the Palestinian Authority and “all those who have contributed over the last two years to bring the project to its starting point”.

Marcel Aviv, director of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, said seeing the work start was “a very exciting and long-awaited, day indeed”.

“The demining of the Baptism Site – a place so significant to so many – is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. The cleaning and releasing of these lands, and the ability to return them to their religious guardians, is a project we take great pride in.”

Brigadier Ossama Abu Hanina, director of Palestinian Mines Authority Centre, said the centre was “proud to be involved in this unique project which resonates with Christians and people of all faiths here on River Jordan and beyond.”



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