River Jordan Baptismal Site Closes Over Pollution Scare

Qasr Al-Yahud is one of the most popular baptismal sites on the River Jordan. But it has found itself this week at the center of a bitter battle over its cleanliness.

Thousands of Christian pilgrims immerse themselves in the river's sluggish water each year in faithful recreation of the biblical story of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist.

But officials closed the site this week to test the water's quality. Local environmentalists have long complained of intolerably high levels of sewage and farming chemicals that, they say, pose a risk to human health.

But tests by Israel's Nature and Parks Authority this week have cleared the site for visitors.

"There is absolutely no problem with the quality of the water," authority spokesman Eli Dror said. "People can come here and baptize as much as they want. I can guarantee it."

For years, the flow of the Jordan River has been getting slower and lower. A few miles south of the Sea of Galilee, itself suffering from over extraction, the river is blocked by a makeshift dam.

The river runs about 135 miles from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and its tributaries are shared by Israel, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank.

More than 90 percent of the water is used for nearby farming. What remains of the once mighty Jordan is made up of waste water and the runoff from agricultural land. It is in this brown-colored cocktail of sewage and chemicals that pilgrims have been bathing.

"We've known for a long time that these waters are not healthy," Gideon Bromberg of Israel's Friends of the Earth said. "For most of the year, they are four times more polluted than Israeli standards would permit."

The row comes at a sensitive time in what has always been a sensitive place. The site straddles the river between Jordan and land that has been occupied by the Israeli military since the war of 1967.

Access for pilgrims was severely limited by the Israeli army for years. Recently, however, restrictions have been eased and money has been invested in the site's amenities. Tourists can now visit six days a week, although the route to the river bank still traverses a landscape littered with barbed wire and mine fields.

A Clean Bill of Health?

Not surprisingly, Israel's ministry of tourism has taken a dim view of complaints about the safety of the water.

"This site is one of the most important, most holy sites of the Christian people and they come from all over the world, so we're investing a lot of money to prepare it," Raphael Ben Hur of the tourism ministry said.

Friends of the Earth campaigners have been quick to draw a link between the drive for tourism dollars and what they allege is a bending of the rules.

"We see the potential of health standards being compromised for short-term economic gains," the group's Bromberg said.

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