The site where tradition holds Jesus was baptized is in danger of being declared off-limits to pilgrims because of pollution in the Jordan River.
Qasar al-Yahud, a few miles from where the biblical river spills into the Dead Sea, has drawn over 100,000 tourists each year, most of whom are Christian pilgrims who wish to undergo a baptism like their savior did 2,000 years ago — and in the very same spot.
But drought and irrigation have turned the mighty lower Jordan River into a stagnant stream as it makes it way from the Sea of Galilee. The brook then swells with raw sewage as it passes nearby Jericho. Israeli health officials are reportedly considering erecting signs warning: “Polluted Waters. Entry Forbidden.”
It is one of Christianity’s holiest sites. Venerated as the most likely place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and declared him the Messiah. (Matthew, 3: 13-17). According to the scriptures, this is the site where the heavens opened and a voice from heaven said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Today, the baptism site is located smack in the middle of the international border between Israel and Jordan.
Israel’s military has designated the location a “closed military zone” and visitors from Israel are required to coordinate their entry with the army. “Tourists are still able to baptize themselves, but authorities are examining the make up of the water,” a spokeswoman from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism told The Media Line.
“At the moment, the ministry is working with the Ministry of Health and the Nature and Parks Authority to ensure that tourists can continue to visit the site.” “It is a very important site,” she continued. “We will do every thing we can to ensure that the water quality allows tourists to visit the site in the manner that they so wish and to enter the waters.”
Neglected for decades, the name of the site is Arabic for “Castle of the Jews,” which is also the name of the 5th century monastery. But since 2007, Israel has tried to bring Christian tourists ‘down by the riverside’ and has invested about $2 million to develop the site in order to allow wheelchair accessibility, shade, baptismal decks and other facilities. Entry is free. There is a similar site close-by on the Jordanian side, but the west bank side is considered holier since that’s the side Jesus likely used.
In response to a query from The Media Line, officials from Israel’s Health Ministry said they have demanded that the Nature and Parks Authority take samples of the baptismal waters for testing, but they have yet to receive the results of these samples.
“This is a complicated issue which requires discussions on the highest levels by the directors-general of relevant government offices,” a Health Ministry statement said. “Until a final decision is made there will be no change in the directives of the ministry.”
Despite the heath risks, the Nature and Parks Authority continues to move ahead with restoration efforts including plans to open the site to tourists without the need for coordination with the military.