After a years-long effort to remove landmines near the site revered by Christians as where Jesus was baptized, Israel facilitated the marking of the Epiphany holiday on Sunday (January 10) by Franciscan friars.
The occasion marked the first time in 54 years that the Land of the Monasteries was able to be entered for the performance of the traditional ceremony at a Franciscan church built about a century ago.
According to a statement TV7 obtained from the IDF Unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), it helped supervise the ceremony at the Qasr al-Yahud baptism site with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, under protection of the Israeli army and police.
Seven churches have lain abandoned in the vicinity about a kilometer (half-mile) from the Qasr al-Yahud site in the West Bank, a major location of worship for Christian pilgrimage in the past.
The biblical riverbanks were once a war zone between Israel and Jordan, and embedded with thousands of landmines and unexploded ordnance. The two neighbors made peace in 1994 but it took many years for clearance and defusal to begin. De-mining efforts were launched in 2018, according to the Halo Trust, a Scottish-based mine clearance group.
“This year, with the completion of a joint effort by the Ministry of Defense, the IDF, and the Civil Administration, the danger has been completely removed,” said COGAT.
“In recent weeks, the Jericho DCL has coordinated with all the security forces and with the [Israeli] Ministry of Health in order to arrange for the baptism ceremony to be held as in normal years. The broader purpose was to allow for traditional ceremonies to be held within the coronavirus-imposed limitations while ensuring the freedom of worship and the security of the faithful,” added the COGAT statement.
Sunday’s Epiphany ceremony began as the Head of Jericho District Coordination and Liaison (DCL) Lieutenant Colonel Amos Twito and Colonel Shai Karmona, Deputy Head of the Civil Administration greeted Patriarch Francesco Patton, the custodian of the Holy Land for the Roman Catholic church.
After visiting the shrine, Father Patton led a procession of clergymen past the outdated signs reading “DANGER – MINES!” in English, Arabic and Hebrew as they went down to the Jordan River to pray.
Attendance at the Epiphany celebration was limited 50 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Despite the challenges posed to us by the coronavirus, the Civil Administration is working in order to make sure that traditional religious ceremonies are carried out in accordance with the guidelines and limitations,” commented Lt. Col. Twito.
“We are here at the Jordan River here where Jesus was baptized, it is a historic unique moment in the history of Christianity and Jesus. We, Christians, renew our baptism procession here,” said Father Ibrahim Faltas, a member of the Custodian’s Advisory Council.
“This a historic day, since 54 years and three days we lost this site because of the war. Today, we have returned” to an “oasis of peace and prayers, this is the most important thing today,” added Father Faltas.
IDF Lt. Col. Twito pledged to “continue working during the COVID-19 pandemic to coordinate the traditional baptism ceremonies for the other Christian denominations and to preserve the freedom of worship and of religion for all believers.”
The DCL chief said he also wanted to “take this opportunity to wish all Christians a happy holiday and a good year.”