While pilgrims have been able to visit a small area along the river bank, a wider zone of 250 acres, which includes churches of several different Christian denominations, has been off-limits for nearly 50 years.
Around 3,000 anti-tank landmines were laid by the Israeli military during its conflict with Jordanian forces during the Six Day War in 1967. The area, officially evacuated by the Israeli government in 1970, includes a Catholic chapel belonging to the Franciscans, Greek and Ethiopian Orthodox monasteries, and Greek, Romanian, Syrian, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox churches.
Work to clear the site began in March, 2018, and is being conducted by the HALO Trust, an international anti-landmine charity, the Israeli defense ministry, and the private company 4CI.
The area around the two monasteries and the Franciscan chapel has been cleared according to a spokesman for the HALO Trust, who told CNA that the work was completed using armoured excavators, as well as a manual clearance team using metal detectors and magnometers.
James Cowan, CEO of HALO, released a statement praising the efforts, and committing the organization to completing the project.
“This Christmas, the HALO Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the Baptism Site of landmines and other remnants of war. Thanks to the dedication of our demining team and the generosity of the Israeli government and Christians, Jews and Muslims worldwide, we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches,” Cowan said.
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“In the coming weeks we will also complete the Russian churchyard. But we cannot stall in our mission to clear every church. HALO still needs at least $300,000 if we are to restore all the churches to their rightful purpose of peaceful worship and reflection.”
So far HALO has raised over $500,000 from the public donations to help fund the clearance, and the government of Israel has contributed an additional $535,000.
Marcel Aviv, Director of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority called the announcement “very exciting and long-awaited.”