Thousand of land mines left over from past conflicts in the Middle East are being cleared away from an area close to where Jesus was baptised.
The site in Qasr El-Yahud in the West Bank attracts more than half a million pilgrims every year, many of who don’t even realise how close they are to the explosives.
A project will now clear away the devices that have lain near the holy site for nearly five decades.
The place of Jesus’ baptism is the third holiest site in Christianity organizers of the the land mine clearing have had to satisfy quarreling church denominations, as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Photo released by HALO Trust shows a digger working at de-mining the land near the baptismal site of Jesus Christ, Qasr al Yahud, in the West Bank
‘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 land mines is very unusual,’ said James Cowan, the head of The HALO Trust, an international mine-clearing charity carrying out the project.
‘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.’
Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus at the site, a lush stretch of the Jordan River flanked by desert.
It is Christianity’s third holiest site after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the spot where Christian belief says Jesus was crucified and resurrected, and the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, constructed on the site where tradition holds Jesus was born.
The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and many modern-day visitors don white robes and immerse themselves in the sacred waters in a show of faith.
Churches were built near the holy site as early as the 4th century.
Greek, Coptic, Syrian and Catholic churches, among several others, all had buildings in the area by the 1930s, erecting golden-domed shrines and other structures.
Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Middle East war and began planting the land mines on church land and in the surrounding area to protect it from enemies.
Israeli officials say that booby traps laid by Palestinian militants are also among the 3,000 explosive devices in the baptism site’s vicinity.
A small path was cleared for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2000 and pilgrims for years have been forced to coordinate their visits with the Israeli military because of security and land mine concerns.
In 2011, the site was finally officially opened to the public after Israel cleared a narrow road leading to the Jordan River.
Today, buses ferry hundreds of thousands of visitors along that road each year, with the surrounding area remaining off limits.
The $1.15 million project is funded by Israel and private donors and aims to open up access to the area for pilgrims, clergy and tourists in about a year.
The project began earlier in March, starting with work on the Ethiopian church’s property, where barbed-wire fencing with yellow ‘DANGER MINES!’ warning signs encircles crumbling buildings.
Bulldozers were used to hunt for the explosive devices.
Within the area of the church, an armored vehicle dug into the earth, hoisting up a chunk of soil and then straining it through a sifter, searching for anti-personnel mines the size of a block of Camembert cheese.
The mounds of soil were sifted through and put into a cleared or still hazardous pile.
In the distance, a string of anti-tank mines, each slightly larger than a 30-centimeter (12-inch) pizza, protruded from the ground.
Even detecting the mines has proven to be a difficult task with experts forced to comb through historical records, interview former Israeli soldiers and survey old maps.
Anti-tank mines, with heavier charges, are embedded to the west of an access road while anti-personnel mines and booby traps are located within the church plots.
But experts say identifying the mines isn’t an exact process with the ever-shifting top soil of the Jordan River Valley displacing some of them.
Drones, dogs, metal detectors and bulldozers have been used to sniff out the rest of the mines.
‘It’s a challenge that requires working slowly, in a safe way and not to take any chances,’ said Marcel Aviv, the director of the Israeli de-mining authority, INMAA.
Eight churches are scattered across the nearly 250-acre expanse of land that borders the baptism site.
The churches share custodianship of many sites in the Holy Land and often come into conflict on how to manage them.
It took almost four years to get all denominations to agree to the terms of the project, a process that saw Cowan, The HALO Trust director, meet church leaders, including Pope Francis.
HALO also waded into the Middle Eastern conflict, seeking approval to work on the site from Israel, which controls the area, and getting a green light from the Palestinians who claim the West Bank as part of their future state.
Majid Fityani, the Palestinian governor of the nearby city of Jericho, welcomed the de-mining.
‘We have been demanding the removal of these mines for a long time,’ he said. ‘We are interested in removing these mines that were planted by Israel because this is our land.’
Representatives from both sides were brought in to supervise HALO’s work. Jordan provides access to the baptism site from the other side of the river and Cowan also met with the country’s king to discuss the matter.
‘We pray and hope that the clearance of land mines 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.’