Seven historic churches near the Jordan River site of Jesus’ baptism are to be cleared of mines, making way for more pilgrimages and furthering inter-communal reconciliation.

A British charity, the Halo Trust, is undertaking the work on the Israeli side, west of the river, in an area unsafe since the 1967 Arab-Israeli hostilities.

According to the Trust’s project manager, the 1km2 site contains more than 2,600 anti-tank mines, 1,200 anti-personnel mines, and an unknown number of booby-traps.

At present, more than 300,000 pilgrims make their way every year to another site along the Jordan River, where Christians believe Jesus inaugurated his public ministry.

Efforts to clear mines have involved Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and seven Orthodox denominations represented on the site by the Greek, Russian, Syrian, Coptic, Romanian and Ethiopian churches. Also involved are the Roman Catholics, represented by the site’s Franciscan church, as well as the Armenians, who own a plot of land there too.

“Our purpose is to return this very ancient site to its former purpose, to something that will endure long into the future, and help the Christian communities, the Israelis and Palestinians and all mankind to be able to come here,” said Major General James Cowan, chief executive of the Halo Trust and a former commander of British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan.

The work could take between 18 and 20 months.