Minefields circle Jesus` traditional baptism site

Just months before the official opening of one of Christianity`s holiest sites to visitors, the area where John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus remains surrounded by thousands of land mines.

Qasr el-yahud: Just months before
the official opening of one of Christianity`s holiest sites to visitors, the area where John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus remains surrounded by thousands of land mines.

Israel says the sites visited by pilgrims and tourists in
an area known as Qasr el-Yahud will be safe, but advocacy
groups warn that crowds could be in danger.

Yesterday, some 15,000 Christian pilgrims marched between
two fenced-in minefields to reach the Epiphany ceremony led by
the Greek Orthodox patriarch on the Jordan River, five miles
(eight kilometers) east of the oasis town of Jericho at the
edge of the West Bank.

Worshippers from around the world dipped themselves in
the muddy waters, facing fellow believers on the other side of
the small river. Orthodox clergymen dressed in dark frocks and
robes chanted prayers as Patriarch Theofilos III blessed the
waters, hurled branches and released white doves into the air.

This site is Christianity`s third holiest after the
Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, on the spot where
Christian belief says Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and
the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where tradition holds
Jesus was born and the baptism marks the beginning of Jesus`
public ministry.

Since Israel took control of the area in the 1967 Mideast
war, pilgrims have had to coordinate their visits with the
Israeli military, because of security concerns and leftover
land mines.

The ancient churches and monasteries on the Israeli side,
some dating back to the fourth century, are surrounded by
signs reading "Danger! Mines!"
"Since it was a border, the place is really littered by
hundreds and hundreds of mines, and therefore the area is not
open to the public and to the believers and pilgrims,`` said
Avner Goren, an archaeologist who works with Israel`s Tourism
Ministry.

The ministry says about 60,000 people visit each year,
but with the upcoming official opening that number is expected
to rise to the millions. No date for the opening has been set.
The Israeli military says the baptism site and adjacent
churches are located in a "completely mine-free zone," and
insists "no danger is posed to tourists or worshippers."

"The (military) regularly clears away minefields in the
Jordan River Valley, and in the last year alone approximately
8,000 mines have been removed from the area," the military
said in a statement.

PTI