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HOLY LAND BAPTISMAL SITE FACES DANGER OF DRYING UP

Drought in the Holy Land may leave millennium pilgrims to the main Christian baptismal site on the River Jordan high and dry, Israel's Water Commissioner said Wednesday.

Up to 700,000 Christians a year visit the Yardenit site at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, where the water level is at a record low after two years of inadequate rainfall.

"It might dry up if we don't have sufficient quantities of rain," said Water Commissioner Meir Ben-Meir.

"But if the water in the lake doesn't sink below the current level, water will continue to reach the site," he told Reuters.

Yardenit was established by Israel's tourist authorities as an accessible place for Christians to undergo or renew baptism in a ritual descended from the New Testament story of Jesus' purification by John the Baptist.

The place on the Jordan River that Christians revere as the place where Jesus was baptized is farther south and accessible only to tour groups with permits or at a set time each year.

Zvi Ortenberg, director of the Sea of Galilee Authority, says the state-owned water company, Mekorot, was taking steps to prevent a drought in the region south of the lake.

"Mekorot will start deepening the outlet to the Jordan next month, not for the Christians per se but for everyone who needs water south of the lake," Ortenberg said.

The southern reaches of the Jordan River are used to irrigate fields beyond the tip of the lake, itself a biblical landmark.

The Sea of Galilee's water level is hovering precariously only 3 inches above the red "danger" mark recently reset by Ben-Meir, who was fatalistic about the vagaries of rainfall in Israel.

"Neither you nor the Christians want me to try and play God. Maybe he'll respond to their prayers," he said.

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