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ARC Home > News and Resources > News archive:

River Jordan closed to pilgrims because of pollution

July 28, 2010:

Photo: See The Holy Land

Source: Martin Palmer,
The Guardian


Link here for original story, which has already been taken up by Jewish American Heritage Month and the Middle East News



"I remember the first time that, to quote the old spiritual, I "crossed over to the other side of Jordan". I was going into Israel from the Kingdom of Jordan, via the Allenby bridge border crossing built by British soldiers in 1917 and never replaced.

I crossed the river Jordan in just a single stride. I should have expected it. I had spent the previous two days meeting with Jordanian environmentalists and they had been telling me about their country's massive water problems. Not just those of the river that shared its name, but also the Dead Sea. But the shrunken state of the Jordan still shocked me, though news of the terrible pollution it suffers no longer does.

I have never had a desire to be baptised in the river Jordan. Tap water in a font many years ago was fine by me. But for many people this ancient river is deeply sacred. And not just for Christians.

There are two sites that vie for the title of place of Jesus's baptism. In the West Bank, Qasar al-Yahud, near Jericho, stakes its claim. On the Jordanian side, there is Wadi Kharrar, which evidence from a 5th century mosaic map seems to suggest may be the actual site. The place is sacred not just to Christians but also to Jews and Muslims. It is also known as the Pools of Elijah after a major event in that prophet's life as recounted in the Bible, and revered by Muslims for whom Jesus and Elijah are both prophets.

The Jordan is not the only sacred river where faith comes abruptly into contact with modern pollution (which faith leaders, such as the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, have called "blasphemy" because of the destruction of nature). The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) of which I am director, has been working for many years with two other sacred but seriously polluted rivers. The Yamuna river in India flows – somewhat sluggishly – through the sacred city of Vrindavan, birthplace of Krishna. And the Bagmati river in Kathmandu, Nepal is now little more than a sewer. It has virtually no fresh water, and at its most sacred place, the Pashupatinath Temple, it is just effluent. In both countries, religious organisations and local leaders have spearheaded programmes to protect and clean the rivers.

Clearly the enterprise of pilgrims baptising or bathing in the Jordan is for the moment a thing of the past. But it need not stay like this. A new movement has emerged in the past year aimed at greening pilgrimage cities worldwide and most major faiths have nominated at least one city to be part of this. This new Green Pilgrim City network is an attempt to address the tension between those who come in faith and those who need to run such vast enterprises. The combined power of religious and secular authorities can mean a clean-up programme inspired not just by economics but by a vision of nature as a gift of God for which we have a responsibility to care.

Sikh "Eco-Baba" Balbir Singh Seechewal holds up water from before and after (right to left) the clean-up of the Kali Bein river by hundreds of local Sikh devotees in the Punjab.
A decade ago in India, the Sikh environmental leader Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal was so appalled at the state of the Sikh holy river of Kali Bein in the Punjab that one day, in front of thousands of followers, he jumped in to the water – which was black with pollution and sewage – to highlight the terrible state of the river. This so shocked even the local government officials that they took seriously the issue of cleaning the river and 110 miles of it were cleaned up.

For many rivers around the world, the problem is that the global population growth and demands for foodstuffs by the wealthy (and particularly Europeans and North Americans) has led to water intensive farming. This doesn't feed local people but it does mean we can have mange tout in January.

For centuries, the need to ensure water sources were kept clean and available for all species to use was enshrined in law in the Muslim world. This good practice was abandoned over the last hundred years but is being restored. In Christianity the ancient respect for sacred water – holy wells and springs – has led to many organisations tackling water pollution and not just in rivers that are spoken of as explicitly sacred. Religious Organisations Along the River (Roar) is a Catholic-led initiative to protect and clean the Hudson in New York state and city while Catholic bishops, traditional elders and members of other faiths have worked together to protect the Columbia River in Canada and the US.

Holy rivers remind us that all water is, or should be viewed as, sacred. The scandal of the Jordan should not just shock us into concern for that site but for all rivers and streams, and not just for us but for all creation."

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