JERUSALEM, Israel – Just about a 40-minute drive from Jerusalem, in the heart of the Jordan Valley and on the Jordan River sits a baptismal site known as Qasr al Yahud, an Arabic expression for the "Jew's Castle."
The area is rich in biblical history. The Israelites crossed the Jordan in this region on their way into the Promised Land. The prophet Elijah was swept up into heaven in a fiery chariot, and the city of Jericho where the walls came tumbling down is nearby.
Some believe the Qasr al Yahud may have been where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. (Matthew 3:13-17) It certainly looks like it. The Jordan River is narrow at this location, reeds cover the banks and it's a place where crowds could easily gather as they did when many came to see the prophet crying in the wilderness.
Qasr al Yahud, Photo, Israeli Ministry of Defense
In fact, several churches and monasteries were built on the site to commemorate the baptism of Jesus.
Between 1948 to 1967, the churches sat on the front lines of war between Jordan and Israel. Israel sowed an estimated 3,000 mines in the area making the churches off limits.
When the area came back under Israeli sovereignty in the 1967 Six-Day War, the government fenced it off as a closed military zone, restricting public access because of the potential danger to visitors.
About a dozen years later, Israel established an alternative site – the Yardenit Baptismal Site, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and others every year.
Now, Israel's Ministry of Defense announced a long-awaited project to clear the Jordan River baptismal site of those mines and other explosive devices.
Demining the area, Photo, Israeli Ministry of Defense
The Israel National Mine Action Authority (INMAA), under the Ministry of Defense, working with the HALO Trust, a British-based international non-profit organization that clears mines and other dangerous debris left behind by war.
According to the Defense Ministry's statement, some one million square meters (yards) of land will be demined, including private church compounds and open areas. The INMAA estimates the project will take about a year.
"This is a very exciting and long-awaited day indeed," INMAA Director Marcel Aviv said. "The demining of the baptism site – a place significant to so many – is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. The cleaning and releasing of these lands and the ability to return them to their religious guardians is a project we take great pride in."
Once completed and the danger removed, the church compounds will be returned to their respective denominations and visitors will be welcome to visit the area.
The Ministry of Defense established the INMAA in 2011 to clear all areas where remnants of war posed a potential danger, excluding areas crucial to Israeli security.
Since its establishment, INMAA has cleared tens of thousands of mines of various types throughout the country. Once cleared, the areas can become national parks, nature reserves, agricultural land and more.