QASR AL-YAHUD — Surrounded by the desert’s vastness, and flanked by the hulks of abandoned Christian monasteries and chapels, the Jordan River flows placidly into what many Christians call the baptismal site of Jesus Christ, where John the Baptist performed the ritual.

On a recent bustling morning, pilgrims sang hymns from a wooden deck overlooking the river. People filtered in and out of the water as a woman in pearls bobbed up and down, gasping for air before immersing again. Naked children screamed and cried as smiling adults handed them to others in the water.

The spirit of religiosity was very much alive at Qasr al-Yahud.

Just ask Zelalem Gerbermariem, 29, a self-declared “believer” in the Coptic Christian Church. A Jerusalem resident of Ethiopian descent, Gerbermariem just completed  his fifth baptism at Qasr al-Yahud, where other believers come in droves each year to drizzle, wade or plunge themselves into the holy water, colored a mocha brown.

And Gerbermariem drinks the water. By the plastic bottle, in fact.

“It’s holy water,” he said, shaking his head before flashing a grin. “It’s not dirty. It’s blessed.”

What Gerbermariem doesn’t know — like most other visitors — is the levels of fecal-derived bacteria at Qasr al-Yahud have long surpassed the acceptable quality standards imposed by the Israeli government, which administers this part of the West Bank. The levels have been climbing lately. The devout continue to visit — and some, acting in faith, choose to imbibe.

Data obtained by the nonprofit EcoPeace from Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority shows that fecal coliform bacteria has been on an upward trajectory since September 2018, at the onset of heavier rainfall and colder temperatures in the area. The most recent levels available, recorded in February 2019, on Valentine’s Day, showed 3,500 counts of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters, referring to the larger bacteria group to which E. coli belongs.

But is it too dirty?

By the Israeli Ministry of Health’s standards, yes. According to a 1999 regulation for Jewish ritual baths, anything higher than 10 general coliform bacteria, which includes fecal coliform, for every 100 milliliters is too polluted to bathe in — the legislation is displayed in Hebrew on the ministry’s website.

The holy water was so filthy in February, it surpassed health ministry standards by 350 times. And some believers drank it.

Graphic by David Mora.

“Everybody here can drink the water”

Gerbermariem was not alone in his holy-water-drinking that day. His preacher, Mabta Gabrieal, 41, was also there. Dressed in khakis and a crinkled, white shirt, a cross draped around his neck, Gabrieal weaved through the crowds to the leftmost edges of the rectangular deck. He removed his clothes and stepped down into the water, holding on to the metal railing.

His eyes and gleaming head were lost from the surface as he baptized himself, completely immersed in the Jordan River.

A lively group was nearby, many of whom wore white robes that one could buy for $8 from the site’s gift shop. He returned to the metal railing, climbed back onto the wooden deck and approached them. Facing the faithful, smiling and dunking themselves in the water, he scooped some into a plastic bottle. Then he drank it, too.

“We drink the water because it’s holy,” he said in Amharic, translated by Gerbermariem. “After we drink the water, it gives us healthy [sic], peace, and blessings.”

While fecal coliform bacteria is not a direct indicator of disease, it is an indicator for pollution: a red flag suggesting there may be harmful pathogens present, explained Alexandra Heaney, who recently received her PhD from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. As a doctoral student, Heaney published an academic paper alongside two veteran researchers on the relationship between climate change and waterborne diseases, with a special focus on diarrheal disease.

“For some diseases, it means that if you ingest just one pathogen, you’ll get sick,” she said.

Gabrieal said that he has baptized himself at Qasr al-Yahud “several of hundreds of times.” It wasn’t his first time drinking the water.

“Jesus is God and he’s our holy savior,” Gabrieal said. “When you baptized here, you called by his name: Christians.”

His congregant, Gerbermariem, insisted that he has never gotten sick from drinking the water.

“Never,” he said. “Everybody here can drink the water.”

The cleanliness of the waters at Qasr al-Yahud have long been scrutinized by researchers and activists as well as some visitors, skeptical of its quality from a glance. The baptismal site has been closed intermittently to visitors, including a period in 2010, following public health concerns then attributed by the health ministry to sewage and agricultural chemicals.

The data says that 2010 had the highest levels of fecal coliform bacteria in recent years.

But the site has continued to welcome visitors, in spite of occasional closures in the last decade. Gidon Bromberg, founder of EcoPeace, an organization run by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental advocates, said in a 2010 article in The Guardian that they would sue should the site reopen without addressing health concerns. Bromberg did not to respond to emails inquiring request on whether they followed through.

Nadav Tal, a hydrologist and water officer at EcoPeace, said the Ministry of Health was in the process of developing new quality standards for the baptismal site, purportedly following a government investigation into the water’s quality. The standards have yet to be published, said Tal.

“It’s well known that there’s pollution in the water,” Tal said. “I don’t understand why it takes so much time for them to publish.”

The Israel Ministry of Health, responsible for determining water quality standards, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Neither did the Nature and Parks Authority, responsible for sampling Qasr al-Yahud’s waters.

Tal has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Ministry of Health, hoping to eke out the new standards faster. He hasn’t gotten what he asked for yet.

Has anyone gotten sick?

Not to his knowledge, Tal said. These things were difficult to track.

He hasn’t seen data on the number of visitors reporting signs of illness after coming into contact with the baptismal waters. Though many of the site’s visitors were tourists who soon left the country, he noted.

“It’s very complicated. If anyone got the disease from the water, you have to prove it. And it’s very hard,” he said. “Unless everybody gets sick. But if it’s only one or two persons, it’s very hard.”

There are, of course, additional complications. It’s possible for a person to become infected with a harmful pathogen without showing symptoms, making them asymptomatic, Heaney said, even in cases of diarrhea. The disease can still be transmitted to others.

Then there are those who do show symptoms, after a lag between their first day of infection. Some of them, too, might wait to go to the doctor.

“There could also be cultural things,” she added. “This is a holy kind of thing, this is a special thing. If they do get sick, they wouldn’t attribute it to drinking that water.”

The Israeli government has through the years vehemently denied that Qasr al-Yahud’s waters are too unhealthy for religious visitors, many of whom come by the busload. The site was visited by 800,000 people in 2018, according to government figures.

The site is free of charge to visiting tourists. Pretzels, iced coffee and tea can be bought onsite, next to refrigerators filled with soda, water and milk, facing a small, busy gift shop.

Heaney acknowledged that it’s possible for a person to drink the water at Qasr al-Yahud without getting sick. It’s dependent on several factors, including that person’s immune system and what pathogens were in the water at the time they drank it.

But she cast doubt over the government’s defenses, saying the fecal coliform levels were well beyond its own safety standards.

“Unfortunately, all of the other things we’ve been talking about are complicated,” she said. “That is not a complicated question.”

Tal simply isn’t there for the Israeli government.

“They don’t want to close because it brings a lot of tourists. It’s a business,” he said. “… Most of the pilgrims don’t know the water is polluted. Nobody tells them. They have no idea.”

Photos by Michelle Bocanegra. 2019.

“I would not drink the water here”

Kevin Young, 58, who works for the Walt Disney Company, traveled with his fellow church goers from the First Baptist Church Orlando to Qasr al-Yahud, to see what he considered “one of the most significant places in Christianity.”

But he had just bathed in Yardenit, another baptismal site for Christians that opens into the Sea of Galilee. The bluish green waters in Yardenit had been clear —crystal, even, he said.

“You can actually see the fish. You can’t see the fish here,” Young said, laughing. “… I would not drink the water here.”

But for Young and several others, Qasr al-Yahud remains sacred. Of 129 reviews on Tripadvisor, a popular travel website, the baptismal site received 4.5 stars, many saying they were moved by the spiritual experience.

“It’s an amazing experience to be here as a Christian,” Young said. “This is THE place.”

Norma Ellardo, 54, a non-denominational Christian from San Diego, California, was submerged head-to-toe in Qasr al Yahud’s waters, though she did not drink it.

“That’s mandatory for the bible, so we can clean our sins,” she said. “But it’s our decision, not somebody force you… I feel born again.”

This sentiment of personal choice was echoed by other Christians at the site, feeling a spiritual connection to the place.

Yet some of the faithful who came in contact with the water were still vocal about their concerns. Marta Steinke, 31, a first-time Catholic visitor from Poland, rolled up her pant legs before standing in the river, shins down.

“For me, this river is a holy river, but when you see this water, it’s too dirty,” she said. “… I’m just thinking of all the bacteria.”

Ellardo’s pastor, Marciela Preston, 54, said their tour guide told them the water was fine — just muddy. Her fellow Californian church goer agreed.

“I feel it’s not dirty. It’s clean,” said Ellardo. She clutched her unstained white robe, drenched from the Jordan River. “See?”

Top photo by Liz Donovan. 2018.