“Ghost” churches near the Jordan River, where St. John the Forerunner baptized the Lord Jesus Christ, could be reopened to pilgrims as part of an effort to remove booby-traps and land mines, reports Reuters.
Thousands of mines litter the river banks which once served as a war zone between Israel and Jordan. Following its 1967 capture of the West Bank, Israel booby-trapped some of the area’s seven now-abandoned Orthodox and Catholic churches as protection against Jordanian incursions.

The two nations made peace in 1994, but mine clearing took several years to begin. The Halo Trust, a Scottish-based charity, is now looking to raise $4 million to clear the expected 4,500 mines on the western side of the river. The mined area is only half a mile from an already cleared site at Qasr al-Yahud (about a half hour drive from Jerusalem), where Christian pilgrims already come in great numbers. The foundation says it will need two years to clear the area, making it safe to open the churches once again, and that its work is supported by Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian authorities.

It is unclear precisely where the Gospel’s referenced “Bethany beyond the Jordan” is to be found, both nations claiming it is on their side of the river. The first evidence of a monastery near the place of the Lord’s Baptism dates to the sixth century, when it was mentioned that a monastery was erected by the orders of Byzantine emperor Anastasius I (491-518), according to Sedmitza.

The Jordanian side was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, after opening in 2002. The Israeli site opened in 2011, and receives more visitors, although its churches have remained closed.

“Every year these places attract more than 450,000 tourists and pilgrims from all over the world, and we are confident that the local economy will flourish after the mine clearance on the territory of the churches, and their restoration,” said Ronen Shimoni, the Halo Trust’s mine clearance project manager.

The team tasked with clearing the mines consists of thirty-five to forty “sappers,” most coming from Georgia.

Two Greek filmmakers headed to the Oscars

Yorgos Lanthimos’s dystopian drama “The Lobster” was nominated on Tuesday in the Best Original Screenplay category of the 89th Oscars, making it the second time the 43-year-old filmmaker looks forward to bringing home one of the coveted gold statuettes.

The award-winning filmmaker is joined in the ranks of Oscar hopefuls by another Greek, Daphne Matziaraki, whose “4.1 Miles” was selected for the Best Short Documentary category.

“The Lobster” stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz as two people looking for love in a world where you are turned into an animal if you fail to make a romantic attachment.

This is Lanthimos’s second Oscar nomination after his “Dogtooth” vied for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.

Matziaraki’s portrait of a coast guard grappling with the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesvos, meanwhile, has already won the top prize in the Academy’s “Student Oscars” in Los Angeles in September. 

Award-winning filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki’s “4.1 Miles” was nominated in the Best Short Documentary category. 4.1 Miles shows a day in the life of a Hellenic Coast Guard captain, caught in the middle of the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesvos. Matziarakis already won the top prize in the Academy’s “Student Oscars” in Los Angeles in September. 

When I returned home to Greece last fall to make a film about the refugee crisis, I discovered a situation I had never imagined possible. The turquoise sea that surrounds the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos, just 4.1 miles from the Turkish coast, is these days a deadly gantlet, choked with terrified adults and small children on flimsy, dangerous boats. I had never seen people escaping war before, and neither had the island’s residents. I couldn’t believe there was no support for these families to safely escape whatever conflict had caused them to flee. The scene was haunting.

Regardless of the hardship Greeks have endured from the financial crisis, for a long time my home country has by and large been a peaceful, safe and easy place to live. But now Greece is facing a new crisis, one that threatens to undo years of stability, as we struggle to absorb the thousands of desperate migrants who pour across our borders every day. A peak of nearly 5,000 entered Greece each day last year, mainly fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.

The Greek Coast Guard, especially when I was there, has been completely unprepared to deal with the constant flow of rescues necessary to save refugees from drowning as they attempt to cross to Europe from Turkey. When I was there filming, Lesbos had about 40 local coast guard officers, who before the refugee crisis generally spent their time conducting routine border patrols. Most didn’t have CPR training. Their vessels didn’t have thermal cameras or any equipment necessary for tremendous emergencies.

Suddenly, the crew was charged with keeping the small bit of water they patrolled from becoming a mass grave. Each day, thousands of refugees crossed the water on tiny, dangerous inflatable rafts. Most of the passengers, sometimes including whoever was operating the boat, had never seen the sea. Often a motor would stall and passengers would be stranded for hours, floating tenuously on a cold, volatile sea. Or the bottom of a dinghy would simply tear away and all the passengers would be cast into the water. The coast guard felt completely abandoned, they told me, as if the world had left them to handle a huge humanitarian crisis — or allow thousands to drown offshore.

I followed a coast guard captain for three weeks as he pulled family after family, child after child, from the ocean and saved their lives. All the ones in this film were shot on a single day, October 28, 2015. Two additional rescues happened that same day but were not included.

The problem is far from over. Many of the refugees come from Syria, where Russia is intensifying bombings that are killing thousands of civilians and devastating Syrian cities. The United States is planning to respond. According to the Greek Coast Guard, thousands of families with children are lining up along Turkish shores to make the unsafe crossing to Greece.

In making this film, I was struck by the fine lines that separate us, the moments when our paths cross fleetingly, and we look at one another for the first time and sometimes for the last. This film shows that crucial moment between life and death, where regardless of political beliefs, fears or preparation, some people will go beyond themselves to save a stranger.

And it raises questions about our collective responsibility — the choices we all make for ourselves, and for others. We don’t all confront the refugee crisis with the same immediacy as the coast guard captain portrayed here. But as our world becomes more interconnected, and more violent, we do all face a choice — would we act as he does, to save the life of stranger? Or would we turn away?

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