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QASIR AL-YAHUD, West Bank (Reuters) - Christian pilgrims alarmed by claims that baptism in the River Jordan could make them sick are being urgently reassured by Israeli officials that the water poses no health risk.
Water quality tests published this week counter allegations by environmentalist group Friends of the Earth that the level of coliform bacteria from sewage in the river is too high for safe bathing, Eli Dror of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority said.
"There's absolutely no problem with the quality of the water. People can come and baptise here as much as they want," Dror told Reuters. "I can guarantee it."
Today's Lower Jordan is an undeniably meagre and murky stream, cut off from its sweetwater source in the Sea of Galilee, sacrificed to the needs of towns and agribusiness in the desert valley and topped up with waste water and runoff.
A mile south of the point where it leaves the Galilee, among a quiet grove of trees at Alumot in Israel, the clear river is stopped by a crude earthen dam wide enough for cars to cross.
In the overgrown ditch on the other side, smelly brown water gushes from a buried pipe and a red-and-white sign warns: "Danger! Don't Enter or Drink the Water".
"We've known for a long time that these waters are not healthy," says Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth. "For most of the year they are four times more polluted than Israeli standards would permit.
"People who baptise in these waters presently, if they have a cut in their skin, could quickly develop a rash. If they swallow any of the water they could develop a stomach upsets and start vomiting," he told Reuters.
Israeli officials strongly denied any problem and pointed out that it had received no health complaints.
Senior Ministry of Tourism official Raphael Ben-Hur said the group's charges were untrue. They threaten to scare off thousands of visitors to the Holy Land who want to wet their heads in the river where the Bible says Christ was baptised.
"This site is one of the most important, most holy sites of the Christian people and they come from all over the world, so we're investing a lot of money to prepare it," he said. It would be crazy to allow pilgrims to immerse themselves in pollution.
For 40 years after Israel captured and occupied the West Bank in the 1967 war, the baptismal site astride the river border with the Arab kingdom of Jordan was locked behind an Israeli army security fence and all but closed off to visitors.
Visits for baptismal ceremonies were permitted only twice a year and the Christian chapels above the river bank fell into ruin, among stumps of dead palms that once shaded pilgrims from the fierce sun in this valley at the lowest point on Earth.
But Israel has eased access to the site over the past three years, and tourists can now reach the river six days a week.
They travel by bus through a military zone over a potholed road between rusting chain-link fences, with minefields on either side. A pyramid-shaped bunker dominates the skyline.
The Ministry of Tourism plans to change that forbidding aspect, said Ben-Hur. In the first phase of its development plan it constructed a chapel and a reception centre. In the next phase, the minefields would be cleared, uniformed soldiers would disappear and six additional chapels will be built, he added.
"Army and tourism doesn't go together," Ben-Hur said. The tourism ministry's blueprint foresees "a land of churches for all denominations", offering Christians "this special spiritual experience that they can only have here".
Over on the Jordan side, the golden dome of a new Orthodox church glitters in the sun. Several more churches are being built at the site, which the Israelis admit is impressive.
Friends of the Earth's Bromberg says he suspects competition for tourism may have persuaded Israeli authorities to bend health norms in the interests of their burgeoning investment.
"We see the potential of health standards being compromised for short-term economic gains," he said.
Dror dismissed suggestions of an internal dispute over health criteria. Displaying reams of water quality assessment statistics, he explained what goes into and out of the Lower Jordan riverbed south of the Sea of Galilee.
It includes large quantities of saline water from the upper Galilee, plus farm runoff, water from fish farms and partially treated sewage from the buried pipe at the Alumot dam, he said, but not "raw sewage" as claimed by the environmentalists.
Nearly all of this is drawn off for irrigation in the upper reaches of the river and replaced by cleaner water. In the meandering 200 km (120 miles) before the Jordan reaches the Dead Sea, this water is naturally filtered so that what reaches the baptismal site meets health standards.
No one denies the region's chronic water shortage or the wholesale diversion of Galilee water from the river, which lies at the heart of this dispute. The Jordan used to be over 50 metres (yards) across. Now it's just five metres wide.
Environmentalists say this degradation is continuing in the name of artificially subsidising a lucrative Israeli agribusiness along the desert floor of the occupied West Bank, using up precious water stolen at the expense of the ecosystem.
"The story of the River Jordan is its diversion," says Bromberg. "Ninety-eight percent of the fresh waters of the Jordan have been diverted by Israel, by Syria, and by Jordan."
In its place, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians of the West Bank are "emitting sewage, agricultural runoff, saline waters in what's left".
Dror believes the health risk allegation is a scaremongering campaign to promote Friends of the Earth's wider agenda that would see Israel and Jordan restore a third of the river's inflow from Galilee and return the Jordan to better health.
"Of course it could be much better," he said. "But we need the water. We don't have any other choice".
Additional reporting by Tessa Unsworth; editing by Andrew Roche