By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN/THE MEDIA LINE
The site where tradition holds Jesus was baptized is in danger of being declared offlimits to pilgrims because of pollution in the Jordan River.Qasar al-Yahud, a few kilometers from where the river spills into the Dead Sea and just south of the Allenby Bridge, has drawn over 100,000 tourists a year, most of them Christian pilgrims who want to undergo baptism there. It is venerated as the most likely candidate for the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and declared him the messiah.But drought and diversion for irrigation have turned the lower Jordan River into a stagnant stream as it makes its way from the Sea of Galilee. The brook then swells with raw sewage as it passes Jericho.Israeli health officials are reportedly considering erecting signs warning: “Polluted Waters. Entry Forbidden.”The baptism site is smack in the middle of the border with Jordan. The IDF has designated the location a “closed military zone” and visitors from Israel are required to coordinate their entry with the army.“Tourists are still able to baptize themselves, but authorities are examining the makeup of the water,” a spokeswoman from the Ministry of Tourism said. “At the moment, the ministry is working with the Ministry of Health and the Nature and Parks Authority to ensure that tourists can continue to visit the site.“It is a very important site,” she continued. “We will do everything we can to ensure that the water quality allows tourists to visit the site in the manner that they so wish and to enter the waters.”Neglected for decades, the name of the site is Arabic for “Castle of the Jews,” which is also the name of the 5th-century Eastern Orthodox monastery there.But since 2007, Israel has tried to bring Christian tourists “down by the riverside” and has invested about $2 million to develop the site to allow wheelchair accessibility, shade, baptismal decks and other facilities. Entry is free.There is a similar site closeby on the Jordanian side of the river, but the West Bank side is considered holier since that’s the side Jesus likely used.Officials from the Health Ministry said they have demanded that the Nature and Parks Authority take samples of the baptismal waters for testing, but they have yet to receive the results.“This is a complicated issue which requires discussions on the highest levels by the directors- general of relevant government offices,” a Health Ministry statement said.“Until a final decision is made, there will be no change in the directives of the ministry.”The Nature and Parks Authority continues to move ahead with restoration efforts, including plans to open the site to tourists without the need for coordination with the military.
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