Health concerns relating to water quality have triggered an environmental advocacy group to call for the banning of baptisms in the lower Jordan River, where the Bible says Jesus was baptised - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
"For reasons of public health as well as religious integrity, baptism should be banned from taking place in the river," said Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), which has offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and Amman.
Israeli authorities said on 27 July 2010 that tests done on the water of the lower Jordan River show the popular site for baptismal ceremonies at Qasr el Yahud on the West Bank meets health ministry standards. Bromberg said, however, they should not take place until pollutants are removed from the water.
The Qasr el Yahud site inside an Israeli controlled military zone faces another baptismal site on Jordan's side of the river. Both sites attract pilgrims who come to the Holy Land, and both are claimed as the authentic site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus.
"Our call is to halt baptisms on both sides of the river. It is exactly the same polluted water," said Bromberg.
The baptismal site on the Israeli-controlled side of the river was closed for one day on 26 July but reopened on 27 July, Bromberg said, while the Jordanian side was never closed nor has Jordan responded in any way to the call of the environmental group.
Bromberg also urged the Christian religious community to become involved in the issue.
"If the same thing were happening to a Jewish or Muslim holy site there would be a public outcry," he said. Bromberg said he has brought local Christian leaders to the site. Although they expressed disappointment at the quality of the water, he said the matter has not been brought to a governmental level.
FoEME said the lower Jordan River has long suffered from "severe mismanagement" and it is affected by the diversion of 98 per cent of its fresh water by Israel, Syria and Jordan, as well as the discharge of untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, saline water and fish pond effluent.
Tests by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority were undertaken following a report which first appeared in the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot earlier in July about a health ministry decree to ban baptisms due to the health risks of human contact with the water.
"The recent health warning is a strong call to action that our governments should work to rehabilitate the lower Jordan River to enable residents and tourists alike to enjoy the river's unique natural, cultural and religious sites," said Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME's Jordanian director.
In a May 2010 report, FoEME noted that while new waste water treatment plants built in Israel and Jordan would remove the sewage and saline waters for treatment and for use in agriculture, the river could run dry at the end of 2011.
The environmental group called for an urgent meeting of government representatives from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, to discuss the rehabilitation of the river.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]