Jordan River
Jordan River Israel news photo: Flash 90

A call by environmentalists to halt the use of a Christian pilgrimage site due to pollution in the Jordan River may leave Christians with one less special place to visit for a whle.

The July 22 call came from an environmental group called “Friends of the Earth”, who called to put a halt the baptisms which take place in Qasr al-Yahud, a site located a few miles from the point where the Jordan River spills into the Dead Sea. The site is the place where Christian tradition says that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and draws over 100,000 tourists each year who wish to undergo a baptism in the same spot that  tradition holds that Jesus did.

However, a recent report by the Ministry of Health has said that there is a higher than permitted level of harmful bacteria at the site and it is considering placing signs forbidding entering the water at the site. Drought has caused the Jordan to have less of a flow and when the waters pass PA controlled Jericho, they fill with raw sewage which seems to have caused most of the pollution. . This led to concerns over the safety of continued baptisms at the site, resulting in the call to halt them. The area is now considered a closed military zone and any visitors who wish to enter it are required to coordinate their visit with the IDF.

Israel has already stepped up to the challenge and is working to ensure that Christians can continue to visit one of their holiest sites without risking their health. Since 2007, Israel has invested approximately $2 million in developing the site, including making it wheelchair accessible and allowing for shade.

With the latest reports on the safety of the water, Israel is redoubling efforts to restore Qasr al-Yahud. The Health and Tourism Ministries are currently working together, along with the Nature and Parks Authority, in order to examine the makeup of the water and find ways to improve its quality. In the interim, the Health Ministry has requested that the Jewish National Fund and Tourism Ministry direct pilgrims to points farther north on the river, where water quality is better.

A similar complaint has been filed about raw sewage from Arab villages spilling over into Wadi Kelt in the Judean Desert.