The Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Civil Administration are working to open the site believed to be the spot where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River to the general public. This despite the warnings of environmental protection organizations.
The authorities were prompted to allow the public to reach Qasr al-Yahud, located to the north of the Dead Sea, due to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel. Until now visitors could only reach the site with prior coordination. The precautions were deemed necessary as the site in question is on the opposite side of the boder fence.
The baptism site on the banks of the Jordan River carries a unique significance in both Jewish and Christian tradition. Located some 10 km (6.2 miles) east of the city of Jericho, it spans an area of 329 (81 acres) of land owned by the Christian churches.
While under Jordanian rule, up until the Six Day War in 967, the site had been teeming with tourists and pilgrims.
Access became restricted in 1968 due to its strategic location, and the area was declared a closed military zone.
The Yardenit was consequently opened on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Tiberias as an alternative baptism site.
The site is mentioned as the point where the Israelites crossed Jordan into the Promised Land after having wandered the desert for 40 years. Joshua 1:2, "Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, to the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel."
The site is the third most sacred place for Christians, after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. According to the New Testament, Jesus was baptized at this site by John the Baptist, and God appeared before him in the form of a dove.
Christians believe that Jesus' spiritual birth took place in this place, after his physical birth in Bethlehem.
Each January the Epiphany festival is celebrated at the site, with thousands of believers flocking to the area. Easter mass is also held at the baptism site in the spring with thousands of Christians participating.
Directions: The site is located north of the Dead Sea. Take Highway 1 (east) to Jericho bypass road, turn north on Highway 90, drive some 2.5 km (1.5 miles) until reaching a grove, turn east in the direction of a sign that says "Qasr al-Yahud".
The site will be open daily until May 22 from 9 am to 3 pm without any special coordination needed. No entrance fees are charged.