Under layers of heavy dust, the doors of a dresser stand open, showing crockery neatly stacked inside and even a stash of beer on the bottom shelf. Candlesticks and religious artefacts peep out from wooden drawers. A cooking pot rests forgotten in the sink whilst a set of butter knives remain, pristine in their original box.
For over 50 years, time has stood still in the churches at the Baptism Site on the West Bank of the River Jordan. Mined and booby trapped following the 1967 Six Day War these places of worship have lain abandoned ever since.
But in March 2018, with the support of the Israeli and Palestinian Authorities, HALO began work to remove the mines and explosives. A team of Georgian HALO deminers were the first people to enter the Ethiopian and Franciscan churches in over 50 years, revealing a fascinating insight into the priests’ daily lives before they fled their homes during the 1967 conflict.
The artefacts have all been carefully recovered and handed back to the church authorities in Jerusalem. The remaining five churches that belong to the Coptic, Greek, Russian, Romanian and Syrian orthodox churches are still suspected to be booby-trapped, as is a plot of land belonging to the Armenian orthodox church. Once they are made safe they will be returned to their religious guardians and become places of pilgrimage and worship as before.
This very special project to clear the Site of the Baptism of Christ is a symbolic example of multi-faith collaboration in the Middle East and holds significance for all of humanity. Thanks to our generous supporters around the world we have so far raised $500,000 and the Government of Israel have also contributed $535,000 to the project. However, the very sensitive location and nature of the site has meant our work is painstakingly slow and taking more time than originally planned. To complete our mission to clear the remaining churches and the thousands of anti-tank mines in the surrounding ground we still need your support.
James Cowan, CEO of the HALO Trust said:
This Christmas, The HALO Trust has reached a pivotal point in our work to clear the Baptism Site of landmines and other remnants of war. Thanks to the dedication of our demining team and the generosity of the Israeli Government and Christians, Jews and Muslims worldwide, we have completed clearance of the Ethiopian, Greek and Franciscan churches. In the coming weeks we will also complete the Russian churchyard. But we cannot stall in our mission to clear every church. HALO still needs at least $300,000 if we are to restore all the churches to their rightful purpose of peaceful worship and reflection. HALO is grateful to both the Israeli Mine Authority and the Palestinian Mine Action Centre for their continued support on this work, which we believe will ultimately benefit all humanity.’
Marcel Aviv, Director of the Israeli National Mine Action Authority:
"This is a very exciting and long-awaited week. The demining of the Baptism Site—a place so significant to so many—is such a unique and wonderful opportunity. The cleaning and releasing of this land, and the ability to return them to their religious guardians, is a project we take great pride in."
Brigadier Ossama Abu Hanina at the Palestinian Mine Action Centre in Ramallah said:
“The Palestinian Mine Action Centre is proud to be involved in this unique project which resonates with Christians and people of all faiths here on River Jordan and beyond.”