After 42 years as a closed military zone, the site where John baptized Jesus along the shores of the Jordan River will permanently open to the public with a special ceremony on January 18.

Until now, those wanting to be healed by the same waters in which Jesus was blessed have had to coordinate their visits with the Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria.

On Tuesday, it was soldiers, not a heavenly voice, that greeted The Jerusalem Post when it visited the site, known as Kasr al-Yehud. The military jeep was parked by a wire fence, next to a potholed road that looked more like the entrance to an abandoned estate rather than the opening gate of one of the holier Christian sites.

Physically, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but his spiritual birth occurred along this small bend of the Jordan River.

With an eye to transforming the baptismal spot into a major tourist attraction and oasis of regional cooperation, Israel has invested millions of shekels in upgrading the site, located over the Green Line in the Jordan Valley. After the 18th, it will operate like any other tourist site in Israel, under the auspices of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority.

The opening falls on the date when Greek and Russian Orthodox Christians make an annual pilgrimage to the site to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany marking Jesus’s baptism.

In advance of its opening, Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom visited the site Tuesday, standing on the banks of the Jordan to hear an IDF assessment of what had been done and what still needed to be done to the site, including repaving its main road.

Shalom, who has worked to open the site, told reporters he had long seen that it could be marketed as part of a spiritual route that included other religious sites in Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

There is great potential for growth, particularly among Christians from Russia and the surrounding eastern bloc European countries, he said.

Jordan, he said, has known how to market its side of the river, where Christians are also drawn to the spiritual waters.

According to Shalom, 800,000 visitors come to the Jordanian side on an annual basis, but only 65,000 come to the Israeli shores.

Just half an hour before Shalom spoke, believers could be seen walking into the water on the Jordanian side. On the Israeli side, a small group of worshipers gathered around a priest as he sprinkled them with water from the river, with the help of a few green branches. But although they were within shouting distance of each other, neither group could cross the river, because it acts as a border between the two countries.

At the opening ceremony, Silvan said, he expects that some 20,000 religious Christians will be present. He added that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had been expected to attend the ceremony, but that was no longer possible since Medvedev canceled his visit to Israel due to a Foreign Ministry strike.

Shalom reminded reporters that the site had great significance in Jewish history as well, as the spot where the Jews crossed into Israel after spending 40 years in the desert.

More needs to be done, he said, to market the site as a Jewish biblical and historical attraction.

From Kasr al-Yehud, Shalom traveled to the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and Israel to explore ways of improving the crossing time, to help both Palestinians, for whom it is a main crossing point into the territories, and tourists who enter Israel through Jordan.

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