River Where Jesus was Baptized Unsafe for Baptisms?

The Jordan River, famous for the baptism of Jesus Christ and countless pilgrims since, is now so toxic that baptisms in its filthy water pose a health risk, according to a Middle East environmental group.

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) called on regional authorities last week to halt baptism in the Lower Jordan River until water quality standards for tourism activities were met. FoEME seeks to promote cooperation between Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists.


NGS stock photo of Jordan River Valley by James L. Stanfield.

“As reported by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, the Israeli Ministry of Health issued a decree to the Ministry of Tourism and the Nature and Parks Authority to ban baptism in the Lower Jordan River due to the serious health risks of human contact with the highly polluted water,” FoEME said in a news statement posted on its website.

But the Voice of America reported that the Israeli government denied the finding.  “It says it conducted tests at the site and the water is perfectly safe for baptismal ceremonies,” the VOA said on its website.

Parting the Waters

A source of conflict between Israel and its neighbors for decades, the Jordan River is now depleted by drought, pollution, and overuse. Could the fight to save it forge a path toward peace? Read more in National Geographic Magazine.

“The Lower Jordan River is arguably the most famous river in the world, of international significance to more than half of humanity due to its rich natural and cultural heritage and its symbolic value and importance to the three monotheistic religions. For Christian pilgrims, one of the largest tourism sectors in both Israel and Jordan, the opportunity to be baptized in the Holy River is a lifelong highlight,” FoEME’s statement said.

“Sadly, the Lower Jordan River has long suffered from sever mismanagement with the diversion of 98 percent of its freshwater by Israel, Syria and Jordan and the discharge of untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, saline water and fish pond effluent in its place,” it added.

“Attempts of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and Israeli Nature and Parks Authority to lower health standards in order to enable baptism in the Jordan are completely unacceptable. The issue is one of public health not to be compromised by short term economic interests” said Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Israeli director.

Jordan River map.jpg

Jordan River map from Wikimedia Commons

The loss of tourism opportunities due to the degraded state of the Lower Jordan River can be estimated in the millions of dollars, FoEME added.

“The 300,000 residents of the Jordan Valley are losing livelihood opportunities due to the poor state of the river. The recent health warning is a strong call to action that our governments should work to rehabilitate the Lower Jordan River to enable residents and tourists alike to enjoy the river’s unique natural, cultural and religious sites” said Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Jordanian Director.

For more information on the current state of the Lower Jordan River please see FoEME’s Environmental Flow Report issued in May 2010.

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn