An environmental group Wednesday urged the Israeli government to close down a baptism site at the lower Jordan River until water quality standards for tourists and pilgrims bathing at the holy site were met.

"The Lower Jordan River is arguably the most famous river in the world, of international significance to more than half of humanity due to its rich natural and cultural heritage and its symbolic value and importance to the three monotheistic religions," Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) said in a statement from Tel Aviv.

"Sadly, the lower Jordan River has long suffered from severe mismanagement," it added.

Israel, Syria and Jordan were diverting 98 per cent of its water and were discharging untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, saline water and fish pond effluent into it, FoEME said.

The highly polluted water caused a serious health risk, it said.

Gidon Bromberg, FoEME's Israel Director, also accuses the Tourism Ministry and Nature and Parks Authority of attempting to lower health standards in order to keep the baptism site open.

Located near the Biblical city of Jericho, located in the Jordan Valley on the occupied West Bank, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Holy Land.

More than 100,000 tourists visit it each year.

The Health Ministry told the German Press Agency dpa that no final decision had yet been taken, because the results of samples it had ordered the Nature and Parks Authority to take had yet to come back.

It would not changes its existing guidelines, which allow bathing at the site, until that decision was taken, it said.

Friends of the Earth called on both Israel and Jordan to work on rehabilitating the river, whose poor state it warned was also harming the livelihood of the some 250,00 Jordanians, 60,000 Palestinians and 30,000 Israeli settlers living in the Jordan Valley on either side of the border.