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Environmentalists say pollution makes baptism at sacred spot in Jordan River unsafe

By Janine Zacharia
Friday, July 30, 2010; A08

QASR AL-YAHUD, WEST BANK -- Environmentalists claim that the hallowed spot along the Jordan River where Christians believe John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ has become too filthy for human use.

"Untreated sewage continues to flow both directly and indirectly into the river," said Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Middle East, a group calling for baptism to be banned at a site where thousands of Christian pilgrims immerse themselves each year in the green-brown water.

Israeli authorities vigorously dispute the claims of unhealthful levels of pollution at the sacred bend in the Jordan. They rushed this week to reassure pilgrims about the site, which is a major draw for the more than 2 million Christians who visit Israel each year.

Eli Dror, head of environmental monitoring at Israel's Nature and Parks Authority, said he is so confident of the quality of the river's water that he let his infant grandson play in it recently.

Israeli inspectors sample the water at the site known as Qasr al-Yahud, or "Jews' Palace," twice a year. Israel has built rudimentary treatment facilities to try to stop the flow of raw sewage into the Jordan; another will be completed in May.

In this drought-prone region where rain is scarce, most of the river's flow is diverted for agricultural use and other needs. What reaches Qasr al-Yahud is a mix of highly saline streams, underground tributaries, and sewage that Israeli authorities say dissipates during its 120-mile journey from the Sea of Galilee.

A water test at Qasr al-Yahud last October found the concentration of fecal coliform bacteria to be within what the Israeli Health Ministry deems safe for "dipping or splashing." The result would not have met the standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is 10 times as stringent.

A spot test this week found the water quality to be safe, even by the U.S. standard. Still, environmentalists dismissed the results as unreliable because contaminant levels can vary hourly.

Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth, a nongovernmental environmental organization of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, said that the government's efforts to clean up the Jordan have been insufficient and that the water remains a health risk to humans.

"The facts have not changed," he said.

The Jordan bears little resemblance to the waterway of Jesus's time. Today, a dam cuts off most of the fresh water from the Sea of Galilee. In some areas, the river is no more than a trickle, making it hard to spot.

The rush of the river depends a lot on the season. In July, the flow between the brush at Qasr al-Yahud is a slow-moving body of cloudy, greenish water narrowly separating the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Jordan.

Israel's Tourism Ministry has invested millions of dollars recently to renovate the site, which is located in an Israeli military zone pocked by mines and traced by barbed wire.

It has already paid for a new wooden deck. Plans include paving a new entry road and adding trees and prayer areas.

Environmentalists hope their warning will persuade Israel, newly fixated on the site's tourism potential, to improve the river's water quality.

"We want tourists to come and travel in the footsteps of Jesus all along the Jordan Valley," Bromberg said. "But we want that to take place in a setting that is honest to the religious, cultural and natural heritage of the area."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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