SOUTH JORDAN RIVER — A trickle of water gurgles past a Diet Coke bottle and an empty Doritos bag before it hits a dam made up of sludge and algae on the southern banks of the Jordan River.
It’s hardly the picturesque scene thousands of British royalists envisaged when the Church of England announced that Prince George was baptized in water from the Jordan River.
This river, where it is believed that John baptized Jesus, draws tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year, and is considered Christianity’s third holiest site after Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
As part of the carefully planned baptism of Prince George, water from the river was placed in the same silver font used for every royal christening since 1841, and was splashed on the infant’s head.
Local tour operators said they weren’t surprised that the royal family would use water from the Jordan River — they just wondered if they cleaned it first.
“This is one of the most famous rivers on the planet, one of the most important for Christianity, and it is filthy,” said Charles MacArthur, a tour guide who leads groups of Christians to the river for baptisms. “I’ve had people who have come all this way and then refused to get in the water because the water was so filthy.”
Water from the river has been used to make the sign of the cross on British foreheads, but has not been previously used for royal baptisms.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who recently visited the Middle East, was responsible for the baptism, and he posted a video about it on his site.
A spokesman for the archbishop could not be reached for comment on whether the Archbishop collected the water from the Jordan River himself, or knew about its pollution levels.
Environmental groups claim that untreated sewage and industrial waste flows into the river, rendering it unfit for baptisms. Israeli officials claim that recent efforts by desalination plants and wastewater recycling have cleaned up the river, and it now meets the standards of Israel’s Health ministry for public bathing.
“I’m not a scientist and I don’t know who decides these things, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see trash here,” said Mitch Winters, a Florida businessman who brought his whole family to the river recently as part of their tour of the holy land. “We were excited, the kids were extremely excited. We expected a river, well, like the rivers we know in the U.S., not a polluted stream… Why isn’t this place better taken care of?”
The environment group EcoPeace, or Friends of the Middle East, said that the river suffers from “severe mismanagement” as Israel, Syria and Jordan divert nearly 98% of the river for their own water needs.
Even as the region received record rainfall last year, the water in most parts of the southern Jordan River where baptisms are held remained at very low levels.