As I went down to the river to pray :

If Pope Benedict hoped to immerse himself yesterday in the waters of the River Jordan, where Jesus was said to have been baptised by his cousin John, he will have been disappointed: the river is now such a polluted, denuded shadow of its former self that bathing is prohibited in its sluggish, brown waters.

A United Nations report described the biblical waterway as a “sewage pipe” made filthy by pollution from farming in Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley, by poorly managed sewage disposal from Palestinian cities in the West Bank and by waste water from Jordan and Syria.

Once a surging river with white water rapids, it is now a barely moving stream for much of its lower course, its volume slashed in the past 40 years from 1.43 billion cubic metres a year to a mere 100 million cubic metres. The main culprits are the intensive agriculture in Israeli farms in the Jordan Valley, captured in the 1967 war, where bananas, avocados, herbs and exotic fruits are grown for export.

The baptism site itself is located in the centre of a vast minefield on the border controlled on the western side by Israeli forces and on the other by the Jordanian Army. On the approach through the desert from the Israelicontrolled side, two abandoned churches stand surrounded by rusted barbed wire bearing triangular signs in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Russian, warning “Danger, mines”.

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