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The BBC's Hilary Anderson
"The entire town turned out and the tourists were thrilled"
 real 28k

The BBC's Adrien Wells
"Palestinians see it as a showcase"
 real 28k

Saturday, 4 December, 1999, 19:18 GMT
Bethlehem begins millennium celebrations
Yasser Arafat Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat greets the crowds

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has launched a year of millennium celebrations in Bethlehem - the town where Jesus is believed to have been born 2,000 years ago

Seated before a stage built to resemble a giant Christmas crib, Mr Arafat listened as a band played the Palestinian national anthem in Manger Square, before lighting a Christmas tree.

Mr Arafat hopes the international attention on the town will assist his campaign for an independent Palestinian state and give a much-needed boost to tourism.

We declare the message of peace from the city of the Prophet of Peace
Yasser Arafat
Palestinian flags fluttered in the sunshine and armed police watched from rooftops around the square in front of the sixth-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto which Christians revere as the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

"From the heart of this eternal city where it all started with the birth of Jesus Christ, in the name of God, in the name of Palestine I declare open the celebrations of the third millennium," Mr Arafat said in a speech read out on his behalf by senior aide Abdel Rahim.

"The message of the Palestinians to the whole world is a message of freedom and independence for those who suffer under occupation and we declare the message of peace from the city of the Prophet of Peace," he said.

He also thanked Pope John Paul II, who wants to make a pilgrimage to Israel and the Palestinian lands next year.

Before the tree-lighting, leaders from all 13 Christian denominations represented in Jerusalem offered prayers for a peaceful and joyous Christmas season.

Millions expected

Earlier, as Palestinian bands played marching songs, thousands of people - mainly Palestinians but some foreign pilgrims as well - filled Manger Square for a plaque-unveiling ceremony.

A total of $180m has been invested in the town, with tourist facilities, roads and sewers being upgraded, in anticipation of the festivities.

Some work is still to be completed.

More than two million pilgrims and visitors are expected to travel to the area to attend special services in 2000.

However there is a fear that continuing violence - the result of disillusionment with the Middle East peace process - could deter visitors.

The celebrations have already been marred by continuing Palestinian protests at plans to expand an Israeli settlement.

Three people were wounded after Israeli soldiers opened fire on protesters with rubber bullets during the clashes.

In another sign of obstacles visitors could face, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on the road from Jerusalem made travellers take a lengthy detour into Bethlehem on Saturday.

The soldiers said the main road had been closed because of Mr Arafat's presence.

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See also:
04 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Peace talks deadlocked - Arafat
25 Dec 98 |  Middle East
Peace fears at Bethlehem Mass
04 Dec 99 |  Middle East
In pictures: Bethlehem's millennium celebrations

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