After three years of delicate and dangerous labor, approximately 6,500 landmines have finally been cleared from around a site that is holy to Christians and Jews, marking the site which, according to tradition. Joshua Ben Nun led the Jews across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.
First Prayer Service in 54 Years
On Sunday, about 50 Catholic priests, IDF soldiers, guests, and journalists gathered for mass, led by Father Francesco Patton, the Custos of the Holy Land, and attended by the Vatican Ambassador to Israel Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, at the Franciscan St. John the Baptist Chapel. It was the first time prayers were held at the site in 54 years. The number of worshippers was limited due to pandemic restrictions.
Joshua Crossing the Jordan; Elijah Ascending to Heaven
Called Qasr al-Yahud (tower of the Jews) in Arabic, the site is located on the Jordan River six miles from Jericho. According to tradition, the site is traditionally considered to be the place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven.
Christians believe it is the location where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and the event was held to coincide with its commemoration. For this reason, it is the third holiest site in Christianity, after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of Nativity. In the late 19th century, the location became the destination for pilgrimages and a number of monasteries and churches were built nearby. The location is adjacent to a location on the Jordan River where many Christian pilgrims are baptized.
After some mines were cleared in 2011, the site reopened after being closed since the 1967 Six-Day War. The mine-clearing was carried out by HALO Trust, a non-political and non-religious UK-based group that removes debris left behind by war, in particular land mines. The group, in conjunction with the Israel National Mine Action Authority, part of Israel’s Defense Ministry, set out to clear an estimated 2,600 anti-tank and 1,200 anti-personnel mines spread out over .4 square miles. The effort required about $4 million. The IDF mined the area after the 1967 war to protect Israel against the Jordanian army as well as a deterrent against terrorists crossing the border.