Pilgrims are flowing back to the traditional site of Jesus' baptism on the Jordan River as Israel removes 40-year-old land mines and improves the area, but barbed wire and armed soldiers testify to the area's tensions - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
"It is a very sensitive place politically and religiously and is of importance to both Christians and Jews," said Lt Col Ofer Mey-tal, of the department of Civil Administration, who oversees the project.
Since 1967, most of the West Bank has been under Israeli military occupation and is referred to as Judea and Samaria Area by the Israeli military and civilian administration. A smaller part of the West Bank is administered by the Israeli civilian authorities as part of Jerusalem District.
Jewish tradition holds that the traditional site of Jesus' baptism on the Jordan River is also the place where the ancient Israelites crossed into the Promised Land following their flight from Egypt.
Located in a closed military area on the West Bank a few kilometres from Jericho, the site - Qasr el Yahud - has been revered since the fourth or fifth century as the place where John the Baptist recognised Jesus as the Messiah. It was marked in the sixth-century Madaba Map, a floor mosaic of an early Byzantine church unearthed in Madaba, Jordan.
Visitors have tripled since 2004, reaching almost 60,000 in 2010 and some 44,000 during the first four months of 2011, said site manager Saar Kfir, who works in the Civil Administration, which has jurisdiction over the site.
While the Israelis maintain the baptism took place on their side of the river, the Jordanians insist it occurred a few metres across the water on theirs. Pope Benedict XVI visited the site on the Jordanian side of the river in 2009, but he did not openly support either side's claim.
Jordanians have excavated their side of the river and found remains of Bethany as mentioned in the Gospels, said Israeli tour guide and archaeologist Harley Stark.
Accessibility to Qasr el Yahud has varied. It opened for a few months in the summer of 2000, when pilgrims could visit with prior coordination with the army, Kfir said.
At the outbreak of the intifada (Palestinian resistance) in 2001, the site was in effect closed because of a lack of visitors, he claimed. With military escort, pilgrims came only for religious ceremonies during the Orthodox Epiphany, the Catholic Annunciation and the Orthodox Easter. Last September, the site opened to visitors every day except Fridays with prior coordination with the site office, Kfir said.
Improvements at the site have been an 11-year-old joint project among the Civil Administration; the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, which manages the site; and the Ministry of Tourism.
So far, US$2.93 million has been invested in the site, Mey-tal said. Two months ago, land mine clearing began near the entrance, he said. For now, other land mines will remain behind clearly marked barbed wired fencing. Israel placed the mines in the early 1970s, a time rife with attempted terrorist incursions over the border with Jordan, he said.
Barbed-wire fences wind down the dusty entry path to the site, encompassing the decaying runs of early 1900s shrines and churches. A guard hut recently was erected at the site's entrance and an electric gate will go up soon, Kfir said. In a few weeks, he added, visitors will be able to come freely to the site, and an official opening is planned.
Additional funds, Mey-tal said, will finance showers for pilgrims, a larger parking lot, more shaded areas and accessibility to the river for those with disabilities.
Among recent visitors was Polish tourist Miroslav Piotrovsky, who sat on the wooden stairs leading into the river while picnicking with his wife and two sons. Piotrovsky, a Catholic, said he was not troubled by the presence of two armed soldiers.
"We have heard about the situation here in Poland, so that is normal. There are some troubles here sometimes, so they should be ready. There are no problems with Jordan," he said as his nine-year-old son Norbert waded in the water. "My sons were already baptised in Poland, but it is another sign for us that the family is able to see the place where Jesus was baptised."
Clad in white robes, a group of Romanian Orthodox pilgrims prepared to celebrate a group renewal of baptism in the river just as a group of Catholic Italian pilgrims climbed the stairs back up to the promenade and the sheltered chapel for a Mass.
"It is beautiful," said Alejandra David, aged 27, from Romania. "We don't know if we will ever be back here again. It is important we are here in the place where Jesus was baptised."
[With acknowledgements to ENInews. ENInews, formerly Ecumenical News International, is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]