6,500 mines were seeded at site of churches post-Six Day War

Just in time for Easter: Jordan River baptismal site is mine-free after 53 years

‘It was like walking into a time capsule, with beer still on the shelf, the tables still laid for dinner,’ says head of UK group who oversaw project at Qasr al-Yahud

A man searches for mines near the site of Qasr al Yahud, the place where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, near the West Bank town of Jericho, on December 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
A man searches for mines near the site of Qasr al Yahud, the place where Jesus is believed to have been baptized, near the West Bank town of Jericho, on December 9, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Like many churches around the world this Easter Sunday, the eight churches at the site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized on the Jordan River will be empty of worshipers on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.

But after a massive explosion that triggered more than 500 landmines in a controlled, daisy-chain explosion last month, the Qasr al-Yahud site is free of landmines for the first time in 53 years.

The last bomb sappers left the site on April 9.

There are eight monasteries, as well as additional churches and chapels, at the site, 10 kilometers (six miles) east of Jericho. Nearly all of the major sects of Christianity from around the world have a building at Qasr al-Yahud, which is located on the banks of the Jordan River.

In 1968, after the Six Day War, Israel blocked access to the churches and enfolded the site in the closed military zone along the border with Jordan, fearing terrorists could use the churches as a staging ground for attacks on Israeli settlements. The Jordan River is only a few meters wide at that point and easily crossable on foot.

The Israeli army seeded the area with more than 6,500 landmines and set booby traps inside the church buildings in the late 1960s and ’70s. For decades, the bullet-pocked monasteries stood shuttered, yellow signs warning of landmines flapping in the wind.

In 2016, HALO Trust, a UK-based demining group that operates in 27 countries and territories around the world, announced it would begin the process of clearing the landmines around Qasr al-Yahud. However, the actual demining work was delayed for two years due to funding issues.

HALO Trust has provided around NIS 10 million ($2.6 million), largely funded by donations, while the Israeli government has provided NIS 7.5 million ($2 million).

Moshe Hilman, the supervisor of the Israel National Mine Action Authority’s Qasr al Yahud site, points at unexploded ordinance found in the compound of the Ethiopian Church on December 9, 2018. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

HALO Trust’s biggest victory was in bringing the eight denominations of Christianity to the same table in order to begin work on the politically and religiously sensitive site.

“We got the churches together, all eight different denominations, and then we got the Israelis and the Palestinians, so all three major faiths, and we looked at how we could do this,” HALO Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC Today radio program.

“All the churches had been booby-trapped and then surrounded by huge minefields with 1,100 landmines, so it was going to be technically complicated but also quite diplomatically challenging. And it was great just walking into the Greek Patriarch’s church with the other members of their denominations, with their big hats and big beards and twinkly eyes, and getting them to sign, for the first time really, a cooperative agreement to do this work.”

The Romanian Monastery, the last church building in the Land of the Monasteries/Qasr al Yahud to be cleared of landmines, in a photo released by the Ministry of Defense on June 20, 2019. (courtesy Ministry of Defense)

The Qasr al-Yahud site is also holy to some Jews. Qasr al-Yahud translates as “The Castle of the Jews,” and some believe was the spot where the Jewish people crossed into Israel for the first time after leaving Egypt. It is also believed to be the site of Elijah the Prophet’s ascent into heaven in a “chariot of fire” and the place where his disciple Elisha performed miracles.

In 2011, COGAT — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories —  and the Nature and Parks Authority opened an access road that straight leads to the baptismal site on the Jordan River, bypassing the mined churches. More than 800,000 people visited the site in 2018, especially around the holiday of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 18.

Easter pilgrims stream toward Qasr al-Yahud on the Jordan River, the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The sappers had hoped to clear the area of landmines by December 2019 in order to allow visitors to the entire site for the Epiphany, but there were some delays. The last monastery was cleared in June 2019, but it took almost an additional year to clear all of the mines surrounding the churches and monasteries.

On April 9, the project got an explosive farewell, with a controlled detonation of more than 500 landmines at once. The explosion was so large it rattled the picture frames in peoples’ homes as far as 30 kilometers (19 miles) away, residents reported.

James Cowan, CEO of HALO Trust, a UK-based group dedicated to clearing landmines worldwide. (YouTube screen capture)

“We blew up 500 of [the landmines] in a huge daisy chain explosion,” Cowan told the BBC. “When we walked into these churches and it was like walking into a time capsule, with beer still on the shelf, the tables still laid for dinner. It was wonderful to return there and now we can begin the process of actually restoring the churches.”

Cowan said there was an enormous amount of restoration work that needs to be done before visitors can access the churches, chapels and monasteries that dot the desert landscape.

“You can imagine after 53 years of being abandoned, the churches need a lot of work,” Cowan said. “But in the time of COVID, these grim times, it’s really nice to have a story like this where there’s actually a bit of hope. Especially in the West Bank where these three faiths have competed with each other for millennia, it’s nice to see them actually cooperating.”

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