The river of Jesus’ baptism now flows with human sewage.

Who would have imagined that one of the world’s most holy rivers, a river referenced in the Bible and revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, would be so defiled that an environmental group would call in July for a halt to baptisms there for health reasons?


The Jordan River isn’t what we think it is.


According to a report from Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the Jordan River is polluted and diverted by surrounding nations.


“Israel grabs half the water and a little more than a quarter is grabbed by Syria. A little bit under a quarter is taken by Jordan and the demise is that 98 percent of the historical flow of the Jordan today no longer flows,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a joint environmental organization of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians.


“We’re left with something around 2 percent, and this is not fresh water,” said Bromberg. “This is a mixture of sewerage water, agricultural runoff, saline water. What’s left is this very, very sad sight of a river that is holy to half of humanity.”


Fred De Sam Lazaro, reporter for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, said, “What few…tourists know is that unlike their faith, the river itself is in very poor shape. The immersions take place in a two-mile stretch of the Jordan, about the only place now considered safe enough for human contact. For much of the rest of its 140-mile journey, the Jordan has been reduced to a trickle as it meanders through a region riven by war and tension.”


In July, FoEME called for a halt of baptisms due to water quality standards in the lower Jordan River where Jesus is thought to have been baptized.


FoEME’s call came after the Israeli Ministry of Health instructed the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and the Nature and Parks Authority to ban baptisms.


“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,” said Bromberg. “The issue is one of public health not to be compromised by short term economic interests.”


A week later the Israeli authorities announced that tests had been run and found the levels of fecal bacteria in the water at the Qasr al-Yahud baptismal site met the health ministry’s standards.


The Qasr al-Yahud is near Jericho, where tradition holds that Jesus was baptized.


The ministry of health’s findings have not suppressed concern about sewage in the river and the health of the river valley.


A winner of a Time magazine environmental award in 2008, FoEME maintains a statement on its website that says the Jordan River is “treated as a backyard dumping ground.”


The statement reads: “Sadly, in the last 50 years, the River Jordan’s annual flow has dropped from more than 1.3 billion cubic meters per year to less than 30 million cubic meters. 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.”


FoEME wants to rescue the Jordan. Its goal “is to promote sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism as well as sustainable and organic agriculture in a cross border and cooperative atmosphere.”


FoEME and others want to build a peace park in the middle of the river near the Sea of Galilee that would build trust and help restore the river.


Nader Al-Khateeb, a FoEME Palestinian leader, said, “I believe war will never generate a drop of fresh water, while peace can generate millions of cubic meters of fresh water.”


Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Christians flow to the Holy Land to walk where Jesus walked and to see where he was baptized. In fact, 2010 might be a record-breaking year for tourists in Israel.


When they visit the Jordan River, where John the Baptist baptized Jesus some 2,000 years ago, perhaps many will no doubt reflect on the baptismal passage: “A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:22).


Would that they wondered what that voice from heaven would say today to them – given the defilement and diversion of the river. Perhaps the voice would say, “You are my children; but I am displeased by what you have done to the river where my son was baptized. And what you have done to my earth. You have not been faithful to care for what was entrusted to you.”


Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.


Editor’s note: For video clips on the Jordan River story, click here.

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