Christian worshipers and visitors headed on Wednesday to Qasr al-Yahud in the West Bank, which claims to be the site of Jesus's baptism in the Jordan River, to celebrate Epiphany.
The river banks were once a war zone between Israel and Jordan, and were littered with thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance. The two neighbors made peace in 1994 but it took many years before mine clearing began.
Both claim that the site where John the Baptist and Jesus met is on their side of the river. The Gospel of John refers to "Bethany beyond the Jordan" without further details.
In 2002, Jordan opened its site, showing remains of ancient churches and writings of pilgrims through the centuries to bolster its claim. UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 2015.
The site on the Israeli side opened in 2011 and has stairs for pilgrims to descend into the muddy river. It has more visitors than the Jordanian site, but its churches, mostly built in the 1930s, have remained strictly off-limits.
Marlyin Khalil, a visitor from Ramallah, said it was important for Christians to reach the site to observe the feast of Epiphany.
"It is great that we are able to reach here despite checkpoints and all the difficulties we faced," he said.
The Halo Trust, a Scottish-based charity that has cleared minefields worldwide and was once sponsored by the late Princess Diana, is looking to raise $4 million to make the western site safe.
Halo claims it will need two years to clear the small churches along 100 hectares (247 acres) of land that belongs to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and that Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian authorities support the endeavor.
The mined area is about a kilometer (half-mile) from the cleared area at Qasr al-Yahud where Christian pilgrims already flock to be baptized.
"The baptism site is the third holiest site for the Christian world. It has been mined back in the late 70s and for the last almost 50 years this area is declared as a closed military area and there is no access to the public and to pilgrims to come to pray and practice as they used to do," Halo's West Bank project manager Ronen Shimoni told Reuters.
Christians are also baptized on the Jordanian side, where several churches from different denominations have been built in recent years to welcome pilgrims.
Qasr al-Yahud is near the West Bank town of Jericho and about a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem.
Halo says some of the seven abandoned church buildings were booby-trapped by Israel after it captured the West Bank in a 1967 war, making the work for the group's team of 35 to 40 sappers, mainly from Georgia, more complex.
At the time, Israel planted the explosives to help secure its frontier against infiltration from Jordan.
"We are expecting to find around 4,500 targets. Most are anti-tank mines, but there are also anti-personnel mines and a few hundred unexploded ordinances, abandoned explosives, and improvised devices inside the churches," said Michael Heiman of Israel's Defense Ministry.sign up to our newsletter
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