Israeli officials to test water after samples reveal high levels of sewage
Harriet Sherwood in Qasar al-Yahud guardian.co.uk, Monday 26 July 2010
Christian pilgrims should be banned from entering the river Jordan at the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptised because of dangerous levels of pollutants, Israel's ministry of health has said.
The site was closed to the public today to allow the river's water to be tested following preliminary results from recent samples which showed high levels of raw sewage and agricultural chemicals.
But the demand to close or limit access to the site is controversial because of an uncompleted $2m (£1.3m) refurbishment project aimed at attracting more pilgrims to what is the third most important Christian site in the Holy Land, after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Around 100,000 people visit the site at Qasar al-Yahud, near Jericho, each year to be baptised in what they regard as holy water or to take away samples for baptisms at home.
Access to the site is only permitted with consent from the civil administration, the Israeli body set up by military decree to govern most of the West Bank.
The baptism site straddles the border with Jordan, and the Israeli side is within a closed military zone.
Signs posted at the gated entrance to the site warn of pollution as well as land mines.
Visitors are accompanied by an armed escort along a road bordered by barbed wire through a desert landscape to the river.
Red and white tape was today barring access to the water, although visitors on the Jordanian side, a few metres across the river, were free to immerse themselves.
"We invested a lot of money in this site – it is going to be open, clean and convenient for all pilgrims," said Rafi Ben-Hur, of the tourism ministry. "I don't know with what authority the site was closed. I was very upset at this initiative. We will do everything to keep the site open. We believe it's safe to be baptised in this water."
The pollution of the river is largely a result of raw sewage coming from Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian sources, plus agricultural run-off – largely pesticides and fertilisers – and hormone-enriched effluent from fish farms, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME).
"It's a very unholy mix," said FoEME's Israel director, Gidon Bromberg. "In the short term, the site should close to baptisms – the water is a risk to public health."
In the longer term, Bromberg said, the river's water needs to be rehabilitated. Currently, 98% of the water is diverted by Israel, Syria and Jordan, mainly for agricultural use, which means the pollutants are highly concentrated.
FoEME is concerned that Israel's fear of losing tourists and pilgrims to the Jordanian side of the site could lead to pressure to keep it open despite the risks. "If the ministry of health caves in, we will take them to court," said Bromberg.
A health ministry statement said: "This is a complicated issue which requires discussions at the highest levels. Until a final decision is made, there will be no change in the directives of the ministry."
At the near-deserted site today, Torhild Tollefsen, 36, from Stavanger in Norway, persuaded officials to allow entry to her and her fiancé to collect some of the green stagnant water to baptise their future children.
"It's much smaller than I imagined," she said. "We came to see the place where Jesus was baptised. It's a special place, but the colour of the river is a bit strange.
"It's sad. This is a sacred place for me and for Christians all over the world. It's important that the river is healthy."
The refurbishment of the site includes landscaping the area down to the river with stone and decking, wheelchair access and shaded areas to provide shelter from the blistering sun.
Among the items on sale in the newly-opened gift shop are T-shirts saying: "I was baptised in the Jordan river."