Revealed for the first time in 50 years: Churches at West Bank site where many believe Jesus was baptised are reopened after workers remove landmines from the area
- Churches in the ‘land of the monasteries’ outside Jericho were surrounded by explosives and mines in 1967
- Anti-mining groups have cleared three churches on the site where it is believed Jesus was baptised
- The site, once a destination for pilgrims, could be re-opened once all of the 6,500 mines are cleared
The religious site where many Christians believe Jesus was baptised has been accessed for the first time in five decades after thousands of landmines were cleared.
Churches in the ‘land of the monasteries’ in the Jericho-area wilderness were closed off for 50 years after the Six Day War in 1967.
The site, known as Qaser al-Yahud, situated on the western bank of the River Jordan, is believed to be where John the Baptist baptised Christ.
It is the third holiest site in the Christian world after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The area near Qasr Al-Yahud, a traditional baptism site along the Jordan River, near Jericho in the occupied West Bank, has been seen for the first time in fifty years
The prayer room of the Ethiopian church is covered in dust and rubble, although paintings remain on the walls as light shines through a cross hole in the wall
Old candles inside the prayer room of the Ethiopian church at Qasr al Yahud baptism site, along with cross-designed cupboards
Explosives that were found at Qasr al Yahud baptism site after the first 1,500 explosives were pulled from the dirt
Eight church compounds, including one belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and seven Eastern Orthodox Churches were built in the 1930s, but were deserted when anti-tank mines and other explosive were laid around them. During the conflict the site was rigged with explosives to prevent gunmen hiding in the churches.
Now, the contents of three of the churches can be seen for the first time after being cleared. The doors have been opened for the first time in decades, although only those with special access rights can get in at the moment because of the explosives.
As well as copies of Original life magazine, decades old paintings and artefacts were found.
At the crumbling, brick-and-concrete Ethiopian monastery on Sunday, a fading fresco of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist could still be seen inside.
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The interior of a deserted church showing a crumbling desk and paintings hanging on the walls, including one under a large cross
Original life magazine from 1967 with a picture of the Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan is seen inside the Ethiopian church at Qasr al Yahud baptism site
Reuven Weismer from the Israel Mine Clearance Authority holds an original Life magazine from 1967 at the Ethiopian church at Qasr al Yahud
Old bottles are seen inside the Ethiopian church as de-mining workers clear 1,500 of a predicted 6,500 explosives from the area which was rigged during conflict
Signs hung on the walls with notifications that the location had been cleared of explosives.
A collection of pieces of mortars and other explosive remnants sat alongside a nearby roadside as a demonstration of some of what had been found.
Efforts to clear thousands of landmines and other ordnance around the site in the occupied West Bank has been ongoing since March.
Defense Ministry officials expect to find a further three thousand targets, consisting of anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, and other explosive remnants of war
The Ethiopian church at Qasr al Yahud baptism site where it is believed Jesus was baptised. Pilgrims used to visit the site before the conflict saw it surrounded by mines
On Sunday, the first images of the church were released. This shows the outside of an Ethiopian church at Qasr al-Yahud in the occupied West Bank near the Jordan river
The interior of a deserted church includes chairs and tables which are covered in dust after abandonment for fifty years
Unexploded ordnance (UXO) has been found at the site by the de-mining groups working to make the area safe again
There are still thousands of mines laid around the site of the churches which are currently being assessed by specialist teams
The majority of the mines were laid by Israeli forces after the country seized control of the West Bank in 1967 from Jordanian troops.
Other unexploded ordnance from both Israel and Jordan has remained lodged in the ground, including around the churches, which were evacuated by Israel in the 1970s.
Israel’s control of the West Bank has never been recognised by the international community, which considers the land occupied Palestinian territory.
British de-mining charity Halo Trust and Israeli firm 4CI have cleared 1,500 of an estimated 6,500 mines.
The Ethiopian church at Qasr al-Yahud, which is the spot on the Jordan River where Jesus is believed to have been baptised
A detailed image under a wooden cross on the site of the abandoned church which has not been visited for fifty years
The project to clear the area began in March and could continue for another year as authorities are hopeful the land of monasteries could once again attract visitors from all over the world
Work at the site just north of the Dead Sea is being overseen by Israel’s defence ministry.
So far, 50 out of 250 acres have been cleaned up, and the initiative – described by Marcel Aviv, the head of the Mine Action Authority as challenging and complex – should be finished by the end of 2019.
The entire project is expected to cost 20 million shekels or £4.3million.
However, it is believed tens of thousands of people will benefit. Last year, 570,000 pilgrims visited a restricted part of the river bank, which was opened to the public in 2011.
The work requires another eight months to a year to complete, said Moshe Hilman of Israel’s defence ministry.
Mines and other ordnance have been cleared from Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox monastery sites as well as a Franciscan chapel, organisers said.
Bullet marks are seen on the columns inside the church while another can be seen far in the distance. Other grounds belonging to Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic Orthodox churches
Other grounds belonging to Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic Orthodox churches are yet to be cleared.
The plan once complete is to return the plots to the various church denominations and allow visits.
‘The Halo Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the baptism site of landmines and other remnants of war,’ the charity’s CEO James Cowan said in a statement.
He added that ‘we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches.’
The Franciscan church at Qasr al Yahud baptism site is seen for the first time since 1967 during a combined operation of the Israeli sapper landmine authority and the HALO Trust organisation
The site is home to different church denominations, and access to the church plots and surroundings has been restricted since 1967
Three churches on the Qasr al Yahud baptism site were cleared of mines and there are four still to go. Defense Ministry officials expect to find approximately three thousand targets, consisting of anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines, and other explosive remnants of war
A sapper landmine clearance personal belonging to the HALO Trust, walks during demining efforts next to an abandoned church at Qasr al Yahud baptism site
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