JERUSALEM, Israel – A church located along the banks of the Jordan River reopened for the first time in decades on Sunday following a massive project to remove thousands of landmines left over from the Six-Day War.
A small group of Catholic priests held mass and celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord at the St. John the Baptist Chapel. It marked the first time an official Sunday service was held at the still bullet-riddled, open-air church in 54 years.
“We are delighted, on this special day, that the Custody of the Holy Land, with the help of God, after more than half a century, has been able to return to the Latin church of St John the Baptist,” Fr. Mario Hadchity from Jericho said in a statement. “May it be a place where all those who enter encounter the grace of God.”
The church is located at Qasr al Yahud, a popular baptism site along the Jordan River surrounded by biblical history. This region in the Jordan Valley is where the Children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land, where the prophet Elijah was swept up into Heaven, and where many believe Jesus was baptized.
Franciscan monks began migrating to the area in the 17th Century. They bought land and built churches and monasteries here. That came to an end when the monks were forced to abandon the area in 1967 during the outbreak of the Six-Day War.
Qasr al Yahud turned from a place of worship into a battlefield and thousands of landmines were planted there.
When Israel reclaimed the area from Jordan 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.
In 2016, Israel began painstakingly clearing the area of mines with the help of the British HALO Trust, a UK-based de-mining organization.
Finally, in October, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land was able to retake possession of the churches and monasteries there.
Father Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, issued a special thanks to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for ensuring that Qasr al Yahud was cleared of all the mines.
“We thank particularly President [Reuven] Rivlin — he was the one who pushed in order to realize this kind of restitution of holy sites to the churches and to develop the area for the pilgrims,” Patton told The Times of Israel.
“Of course, this year, because of the coronavirus it is impossible to celebrate with the local Christians and the pilgrims, but you know that this is a site with millions of visitors every year and so for us, it is the beginning of a new season,” said Patton.
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