After nearly 50 years, the sacred site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized is set to reopen as the last of many landmines are cleared from the area.
In a statement released Sunday, the Israeli government announced that its work with international anti-landmine experts is almost complete. Marcel Aviv, who heads the Defense Ministry’s National Mine Action Authority, said he hopes to have the task completed by December 2019.
“Israel placed all the mines between 1967 to 1971 because there was a war, but now it’s empty because it’s a border of peace,” Aviv said, as reported by The Times of Israel.
“In 10 to 20 years, we will have all mines in Israel cleared, including Golan Heights and Syrian border,” he added. “It’s our vision that there will be no land mines on the borders of Israel.”
The Israeli government has worked closely with the UK de-mining organization HALO Trust. In 2016, the group announced that it would begin clearing the nearly 3,000 landmines laid by the Israeli army during its clash with Jordanian forces during the Six Day War in 1967. The project was delayed two years, however, do due funding constraints.
The historic site located about 10 kilometers east of Jericho is home to several Christian churches, including a Catholic chapel, Greek and Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries, and Greek, Romanian, Syrian, Russian and Coptic Orthodox churches, according to the Times. The area, where tradition holds as the site of Christ’s baptism on the Jordan River, is also believed to be the place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan during the Exodus from Egypt, as well as the place where the prophet Elijah was taken up into Heaven, Catholic News Agency reported.
While visitors have been able to tour the area along the river, the 250-acre territory that houses these churches remains closed to the public due to safety concerns. Once the de-mining process is complete, the churches will be handed over to their former leaders.
“This Christmas/holiday season, the HALO Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the Baptism Site of landmines and other remnants of war,” James Cowan, the CEO of HALO Trust said in a statement, as reported by The Times of Israel.
Cowan thanked the Israeli Mine Authority and the Palestinian Mine Action Centre for working together to restore the cherished land to its former glory.
"It was HALO that secured the support of the churches, and it is HALO that has enabled the Palestinian Authority and the…
Aviv called the latest news “very exciting and long-awaited.”
“The de-mining of the Baptism Site — a place so significant to so many — is such a unique and wonderful opportunity,” he added, according to CNA. “The cleaning and releasing of this land, and the ability to return them to their religious guardians, is a project we take great pride in.”