Christian Pilgrimage Baptism in Israel: A call by environmentalists to halt the use of a Christian pilgrimage site due to pollution in the Jordan River may leave Christians with one less special place to visit for a while.
The July 22 call came from an environmental group called “Friends of the Earth”, who called to put a halt the baptisms which take place in Qasr al-Yahud, a site located a few miles from the point where the Jordan River spills into the Dead Sea.
The site is the place where Christian tradition says that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and draws over 100,000 tourists each year who wish to undergo a baptism in the same spot that tradition holds that Jesus did.
The environmentalist group Friends of the Earth halted baptisms at the site due to raw sewage leaking into the water near the PA-controlled city of Jericho, which has caused high levels of harmful bacteria in the water. Pollution from Palestinian Authority towns is ruining natural areas in the Binyamin region. PA pollution is an issue even in areas under full Israeli control (Area C).
A similar complaint has been filed about raw sewage from Arab villages spilling over into Wadi Kelt in the Judean Desert: Wadi Kelt, a valley that runs from Judea to the Dead Sea, and specifically between Kfar Adumim and Jericho. The National Infrastructure Minister toured the Binyamin region stating that Israel should consider ceasing the flow of water to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority if it does not stop contaminating the water with sewage.
Residents of the PA town of Anata near Jerusalem dump their trash in a pond that is known to be filled with sewage, council members explained. When too much garbage is thrown into the pond, it overflows, leading the sewage to flow into nearby natural streams, among them Wadi Kelt. The PA apparently does nothing to enforce proper disposal of trash in the area, according to their testimony. They called on Israeli authorities to get involved in order to prevent serious damage to the Jerusalem aquifer.
A recent report by the Ministry of Health stated that there is a higher than permitted level of harmful bacteria at the site and it is considering placing signs forbidding entering the water at the site. Drought has caused the Jordan to have less of a flow and when the waters pass PA controlled Jericho, they fill with raw sewage which seems to have caused most of the pollution.
This led to concerns over the safety of continued baptisms at the site, resulting in the call to halt them. The area is now considered a closed military zone and any visitors who wish to enter it are required to coordinate their visit with the IDF.
With the latest reports on the safety of the water, Israel is redoubling efforts to restore Qasr al-Yahud. The Health and Tourism Ministries are currently working together, along with the Nature and Parks Authority, in order to examine the makeup of the water and find ways to improve its quality. In the interim, the Health Ministry has requested that the Jewish National Fund and Tourism Ministry direct pilgrims to points farther north on the river, where water quality is better.
Israel has already stepped up to the challenge and is working to ensure that Christians can continue to visit one of their holiest sites without risking their health. Since 2007, Israel has invested approximately $2 million in developing the site, including making it wheelchair accessible and allowing for shade.