In an historic display of unity, the heads of the 13 traditional churches of Jerusalem gathered together in Bethlehem's Manger Square over the weekend to pray for a joyful Christmas and to launch the millennium celebrations for Christianity's 2000th anniversary.

At the official launch patriarchs, archbishops and other church heads and officials from the Holy Land were joined by church representatives?Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox?from around the world and by thousands of pilgrims.

Palestinians, some of them dressed in biblical costumes, danced behind marching bands in the shadow of the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born.

But the celebrations could not conceal the fact that most of Bethlehem's residents are Muslims. Christians are a shrinking minority here. A reminder of the changing demography of this sacred town was the fact that a church choir had to wait until a Muslim service ended at a mosque across Manger Square before singing Christmas carols.

But one of the principal participants, Pope John Paul II's envoy to the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, told Ecumenical News International (ENI) the start of the new millennium was an appropriate moment for Christianity and Islam to show greater respect for one another.

"Bethlehem has been totally renovated for the year 2000 and the work has been done by Muslims and Christians together," he said. "The message at the beginning of the new millennium is that we have to recover this capacity?the Muslims to rejoice with the Christians when the Christians rejoice, and the Christians to be capable of rejoicing with the Muslims when the Muslims rejoice."

Bethlehem, a Palestinian-controlled area in the West Bank about ten minutes' drive from Jerusalem, has undergone a $180-million facelift financed by foreign donations and private funds. Two million tourists are expected to visit Bethlehem next year for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ.

Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, signaled the climax of the festivities by switching on the lights of a gigantic Christmas tree to launch a year of activities that he hopes will boost tourism and improve the local economy.

Earlier, in a speech read out on his behalf, Arafat had criticized the Israeli government, and stressed his people's need to have independence and freedom.

Many other officials present, some of whom were attending a meeting of general secretaries of Christian World Communions, emphasized the importance of the event for Christians world-wide. Holding up a candle, one of the guests, John L. Peterson, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, told ENI it was unlikely there had been a greater show of Christian unity in a long time.

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"The 13 church heads [of Jerusalem] walking together?indeed that is a sign of unity. And to come here and to be able to see this Manger Square absolutely packed with people and most importantly with indigenous Christians; to celebrate and look forward to this new millennium, certainly it is sign of tremendous hope for the church," he said. "And not only hope for the church in this land, but hope for the church around the world."

Sitting alongside him was Joe Hale, general secretary of the World Methodist Council, who said the show of Christian unity must come as a surprise to non-Christians. "Many people are confused. They think of the different denominations, the different families of churches, as different religions, when we all really have the same foundation and the same message," he said.

Dr Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, told ENI the gathering of the heads of Jerusalem's churches in one place had sent a powerful signal to other religions that Christians of different denominations were prepared to make a united stand. "I think it sends a very good message to the religious communities in this land, to the Islamic community and also the Jewish community, that Christians are united and that is very important," he said.

"I don't think the churches will remain the same. And I think we are moving into the third millennium with some kind of encouragement and good signs that the unity we have been praying for, for so long, is ahead of us."

Also attending was Dr Milan Opocensky, general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, who also told ENI he was encouraged by the gathering.

"I think that it is a sign of unity especially in this part of the world, but I think it is also a sign of unity around the world," he said. "Because, if the churches in this area, who have been separated very often from each other, if they are able to march, to walk together, then I think it is a very important, symbolic sign."

The Bethlehem event came three weeks before Christmas Eve, when the town is expected to become the focus of attention for many of the world's Christians as they celebrate the coming of the new millennium in the place where many believe Christianity began, with the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, the biggest crowds are expected in March, when Pope John Paul is due to arrive in Bethlehem as part of a visit to the Holy Land. He is also expected to visit Jerusalem and Nazareth, the two other places most closely associated with the life of Jesus.

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Related Elsewhere:

See our earlier coverage of Israel and the Millennium, "Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning." (June 14, 1999)

In addition to promoting tourism to Jesus' birthplace, the Bethlehem 2000 Web site offers such strange sayings as "Bethlehem 2000 is the only Truth, the only Way, the only Triumph." Hmmm.

See the New York Times coverage of the event here, but you'll need to register for the site if you haven't before.

See also the coverage in the UK's Daily Telegraph, the Boston Globe, or FOX News.

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