QASER AL-YAHUD – The Archbishop of Canterbury today visited the site of the Baptism of Christ to witness how the HALO Trust is preparing to clear thousands of mines from churches and monasteries beside the River Jordan.
Archbishop Justin Welby met with HALO CEO James Cowan and West Bank programme manager Ronen Shimoni as he was shown the site from safe ground and briefed on the clearance plan. The churches are owned by the Roman Catholic church and the Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek, Romanian, Russian and Syrian orthodox churches. Many of the buildings are understood to contain booby-traps.
The HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian landmine clearance organisation, has secured the agreement of both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and the churches to clear an estimated 2,600 anti-tank mines that were laid there during the 1967 war.
Clearance operations will begin after the mid-year in partnership with the Israeli Mine Action Authority (INMAA). The total area to be cleared is around one million square metres - equivalent to around 138 football pitches. The clearance team will be composed of Palestinians, Israelis and Georgians.
James Cowan, CEO of HALO said: “Archbishop Justin was clearly moved by his visit to the Baptism site and interested in HALO’s plans to restore the churches to places of worship and reflection. His support is incredibly important in helping to galvanise fundraising efforts for this work– not only from the Anglican community, but from people of all faiths and cultures who wish to see peace and reconciliation in the region. We are lucky to have Archbishop Justin’s backing, along with that of Pope Francis and the Holy See, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and other Christian leaders in Jerusalem. During his time at the Baptism site today, I was heartened to see three HALO de-miners – a Georgian Christian, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim – sharing stories about their families. For me, this is what this project is all about. Archbishop Justin’s visit marks the start of a journey which HALO believes will be an unprecedented act of inter-faith unity in the region.
At present a safe road gives access through the minefield to a visitors’ centre beside the Jordan river, which in 2016 was visited by more than 400,000 pilgrims. Restoring safe access to the full site will allow the churches to be re-opened for the first time in 50 years.