April 3, 2010
By Jason Koutsoukis
The Sydney Morning Herald
Qasr Al-Yahud - One of the best places to observe miracles these days is on the banks of the River Jordan, where, the Bible says, John baptised Jesus Christ and declared him the Messiah.
The miracle today is that every Easter thousands of people try to emulate Jesus and dunk themselves in water so foul.
For the fabled tributary that flows from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea - chosen by Rupert Murdoch for the recent baptism of his daughters Grace and Chloe - is now little more than an unholy brew of raw sewage, chemical run-off and brackish agricultural leftovers.
No matter, say the hordes of Christian pilgrims who have been flocking this week to Qasr al-Yahud, purported to be the exact site of Jesus' baptism.
Before stripping down to his underpants, John Ferraro, 30, a Romanian engineer, told the Herald of his firm belief that this was the cleanest water in the world. ''This is the water that Jesus was washed in,'' he said. ''This water belongs to God. Why would God want to make anyone sick with this holy water?''
Watching a euphoric Mr Ferraro splash around the River Jordan as if it was his bathtub, few could doubt his sincerity. But when he started gargling the muddy concoction, some might reasonably have questioned his mental health.
''Beautiful,'' Mr Ferraro exclaimed. ''This is one of the most special moments of my life.'' And his friend Marian Revoka, 52, also from Romania, could not wait to join him.
''This is where Jesus began the journey to bring us all a better life,'' Ms Revoka said. ''We are in a sacred place.''
Back at the Jerusalem Medical Laboratory in Sultan Suleiman Street, in East Jerusalem, Wail Siaj was not so sure about the water's nourishing properties.
''This is a very dirty mixture,'' Dr Siaj said, examining droplets of a river water sample under
his microscope. ''Lots of very unhealthy looking organisms.''
On behalf of the Herald, Dr Siaj is growing a culture that will help him identify what kinds of organisms are in the water.
''The very high likelihood of the presence of E.coli means that it can come from only one source - human stools.''
The Middle East organiser for Friends of the Earth, Mira Edelstein, who is leading a campaign in Israel to rehabilitate the Jordan, said the waterway is an environmental catastrophe.
After the diversion of 90 per cent of the 1.3 billion cubic metres of water that would normally flow down the river each year by the governments of Syria, Jordan and Israel, Ms Edelstein said all that is left is basically 100 million cubic metres of untreated sewage.
''With Israel, Jordan and Syria each grabbing as much clean water as they can, it is ironically the sewage that is keeping the river alive today,'' she said.
The Israeli environmental organisation, Zalul, said the area along the river with the poorest water quality is the baptism site of Qasr al-Yehud and that pilgrims entering the river do so at great risk to their health.
The faithful are not deterred.
''We're not drinking the water,'' said a Romanian tour guide, who would give only her first name, Ramona. ''I went to Kings Canyon in Australia where the water wasn't so clean and I survived.''
Melia Yokic, 40, a priest from Belgrade, was diving in the water, enjoying his 10th visit.
The Israeli authorities open the gates to Qasr al-Yahud at special times of the year and Easter is among the busiest. On Tuesday alone they received 3000 pilgrims. ''I'm here all the way from Wollongong,'' said John Turgrul, 73, a mechanic. ''Very special,'' he said.
So would he be dunking his head all the way under? ''I'm not so sure,'' Mr Turgrul said. ''Let's see what the wife does first.''