A church located on the banks of the River Jordan has held its first mass in 54 years after removing thousands of landmines left from the war between Israel and Jordan.
St. John the Baptist Chapel, located in Qasr Al-Yahud, is part of a group of seven churches that were abandoned when the site near the West Bank became a battlefield.
The traditional site that commemorates Jesus' baptism saw a procession led by the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land officiating the mass.
"At the end of this celebration of the Eucharist, we will be reopening this same register, we will turn over the page and on a new page, we will be able to write today's date, 10th January 2021, and sign with our names, to bear witness that this place, which had been transformed into a battlefield, a minefield, is once again a field of peace, a field of prayer," said Fr Patton in a statement.
Although attendance was restricted to 50 people due to coronavirus restrictions, the Apostolic Nuncio in Israel and Cyprus and Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, Mons. Leopoldo Girelli, the Italian Consul-General Giuseppe Fedele, the Spanish Vice-Consul Paloma Serra and representatives of the Israeli military authorities were among those who attended.
In 2018, de-mining efforts started which included support from UK-based mine clearance group Halo Trust but activity finished that same year. It wasn't until October 2020 that the church keys were returned to the Custody of the Holy Land to start the restoration of the site.
Although some restoration work was made to hold the mass, more needs to be done. Director of the Custodial Technical Office, Leonardi Di Marco said they are aiming to reopen to pilgrims.
"The pilgrims' experience will continue with the visit to the River Jordan by the road behind the church of St John which leads towards the altar on the Jordan's banks, which is also the property of the Custody."
Speaking to local media, Fr Patton acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic will stop many pilgrims reaching the site but celebrated the opening of the church saying "it is the beginning of a new season".