New hope for Holy Land’s minefield churches

Qasr El-Yahud Image copyright Israeli MOD
Image caption Qasr El-Yahud is on the edge of a minefield surrounding a cluster of churches

The soil is parched clay and crackles underfoot, and the only sound we can hear is birdsong.

The seven buildings on this site have lain silent and empty since 1967.

This is a place where pilgrims fear to tread, fenced off with barbed wire and a locked gate, even though it is bisected by the road leading down to the site on the River Jordan where Christians believe Jesus was baptised by John, and began his public ministry.

For almost 50 years, the churches - built in Byzantine times but later booby-trapped, mined and pockmarked by artillery fire - have been crumbling gently in the middle of a minefield.

It was laid mainly by Israeli troops during the 1967 War, when Israel captured the land west of the River Jordan, known today as the occupied West Bank.

The sensitivities of the site have made clearing it and making it safe something of a political minefield that the British charity, the Halo Trust, has had to negotiate with caution, making clear its credentials as a neutral humanitarian mine-clearance organisation.

More than 300,000 pilgrims make the journey every year to the west bank of the River Jordan to the baptism site known as Qasr El-Yahud.

Its name is said to come from the "Crossing of the Jews", as it is where Joshua is believed to have led the Israelites and the Ark of the Covenant over the river to safety.

The site on the riverbank is once again a major place of pilgrimage for Christians around the world since its reopening in 2011.

In fact, it is one of the most important Christian sites in the Holy Land.

Pope Saint John Paul II visited by helicopter in 2000.

And, in 2014, Pope Francis went to the Jordanian site on the opposite bank of the river, before he entered Israel.

Building community links

The Halo Trust is well aware of the many sensitivities involved here, and has spent much time negotiating the agreement to make safe this sacred site, hoping not just to clear the mines but to help build links between fractured communities.

Image copyright Noam Sharon
Image caption The site has become one of the most important for Christians in the Holy Land

Agreement was reached not only with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, but also with the seven Orthodox denominations represented on the site - by the Greek, Russian, Syrian, Coptic, Romanian and Ethiopian churches, as well as a plot of land owned by the Armenians - and the Roman Catholics, represented on the site by a Franciscan church.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, describes it as a "great sign of reconciliation" and a way of illuminating the sacred history connected to the land.

The Halo Trust is already involved in other mine-clearance projects in the West Bank, but this may be its most challenging yet from the perspective of keeping united all those with a stake in the clearance of this high-profile site.

The Holy Land has long been a place where sacred sites can divide, rather than unite.

According to Michael Heiman, technology and standards manager at the Israeli National Mine Action Authority, one of the reasons that the area was not made safe sooner was thanks to fears that the churches could suffer further damage during the clearance.

Image copyright Noam Sharon
Image caption The site had been fenced off to protect the public from mines

As we walk cautiously closer towards the sealed-off churches, the West Bank project manager at the Halo Trust, Ronen Shimoni, says the 1-sq-km (0.4-sq-mile) site contains more than 2,600 anti-tank mines, another 1,200 anti-personnel mines, and an unknown number of booby-traps within the churches, as well as unexploded ordnance left behind after the fighting.

Those carrying out the actual clearance of the site will be Georgians who have already worked on other projects here, although the director of the Palestinian Mine Action Centre, Brig Juma Abdeljabbar, says Palestinians will be involved as part of the wider team.

"We have one and a half million mines in the Palestinian Territories and the Jordan Valley," he says.

Image copyright Noam Sharon
Image caption The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, has welcomed the initiative as a sign of "reconciliation"

"There are a huge number of mines and unexploded ordnance in some areas.

"There are kids who don't realise the danger of these things and they collect one and take it home, then they play with it, so it explodes.

"We have an injury every 10 days because of the unexploded ordnance."

With the temperature rising to over 40C, Major General James Cowan, chief executive of the Halo Trust, visits the site with us, treading carefully beside the barbed wire fences bearing signs warning of mines.

Visiting pilgrims

The site is otherwise sealed off to visitors, with buses full of pilgrims speeding straight past on the road that leads down to the river.

As a former commander of British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan, from 2009-10, after serving in Iraq and Northern Ireland, Major General Cowan became all too familiar with the human cost of war.

"This project means a lot to me," he says.

"I used to be a soldier, and I served in lots of places where mines were killing and injuring soldiers.

"Many of my friends and comrades were hurt or killed by improvised explosive devices.

"So it matters to me on a personal level, as well. "

"Our purpose is to return this very ancient site to its former purpose, to something that will endure long into the future, and help the Christian communities, the Israelis and Palestinians and all mankind to be able to come here.

"The great joy of being able to clear it of landmines is that once a mine is gone, it's gone forever, so pilgrims can come and they can celebrate all that this place means."

Image copyright Noam Sharon
Image caption Canon Andrew White hopes the project can promote friendship

That afternoon, Canon Andrew White - best known as the "Vicar of Baghdad" - visits the site, viewing the project as one that brings hope of a rebirth on many levels.

"This is a site of restoration, and we hope not just of restoration but also of reconciliation and of rebuilding relationships," he says.

"I would love to see this place, so known for destruction and death, become a place where those who have hated each other can come together as friends."

The work itself will not be easy or quick; it is likely to take between 18 and 20 months.

The soil is treacherous, and prone to flooding, meaning that mines have moved from where they may originally have lain.

There is also the small matter of the $4m (£2.7m) the Halo Trust needs to raise before the demining can be completed.

Then, the plan is for the site to be designated a national park, rather than a military area.

Peace in the Middle East may still be a distant dream, but at least this one small but significant corner of disputed land may soon be cleared of the deadly debris of war.

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