The closed-off historical churches near the site at the Jordan River where Jesus Christ is believed to have been baptized could be reopened to almost half a million pilgrims, as a project to remove land mines progresses.
It is claimed that John the Baptist and Jesus met on the river bank of the so-called "ghost churches," as reported byReuters, though the debate has never been settled.
They were closed off to the public and littered with thousands of mines and booby-traps following the war between Israel and Jordan, and even though the two countries agreed on peace in 1994, it has taken a number of years to start the mine-clearing process.
Close to half a million people who come to the holy site each year will have the opportunity to see the churches once it is safe, authorities predict.
"Over 450,000 tourists from all over the world come to visit this site every year and Halo believes that after [the church area] is cleared and rebuilt, the local economy will benefit," said Ronen Shimoni, a West bank project manager with The Halo Trust, a Scottish-based charity that is looking to raise $4 million to remove the land mines.
"The baptism site is the third holiest site for the Christian world," Shimoni noted. "It has been mined back in the late 70s and for the last almost 50 years this area is declared as a closed military area and there is no access to the public and to pilgrims to come to pray and practice as they used to do."
Michael Heiman of Israel's Defense Ministry explained that the booby-traps were laid down during the 1967 war, and so far a team of 35 to 40 sappers has been working on clearing them out.
"We are expecting to find around 4,500 targets. Most are anti-tank mines, but there are also anti-personnel mines and a few hundred unexploded ordnances, abandoned explosives, and improvised devices inside the churches," Heiman said.
While the ghost churches remain off-limits, several other houses of worship from different denominations have been built in recent years to welcome the pilgrims, offering Christians the chance to be baptized.
Earlier this month, Christian film producer and minister DeVon Franklin revealed that he baptized three people while visiting Israel with his wife, even though that was not the original purpose of his trip.
"Today we went to the Jordan river where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. We thought there was going to be a minister on duty but to our surprise there wasn't," Franklin explained.
"So everyone turned to me and I looked around like who are you looking at? I wasn't anticipating that God had me in mind to be the minister on duty."
Though he first declined the request, he later decided to do "whatever God's will is."
"I baptized three beautiful souls in the Jordan River! And the peace that fell on all of us was amazing," he wrote on Instagram. "Remember, there's a peace when you step out of your comfort zone and live according to your calling!"