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Tuesday, 21 December, 1999, 12:54 GMT
Journey through the Holy Land

Car journey From Galilee to Bethlehem

By BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen

The idea behind my trip was to retrace the nativity journey of Mary and Joseph in the week before Christmas. First I visited the Galilee, the place where Jesus preached according to the Bible.

It's hoped three million people will visit the Holy Land in the millennium year. The Israeli Government is worried about members of so-called Doomsday Cults - religious extremists who plan to carry out violent acts - even mass suicides - to bring on the Second Coming of Christ.

The pilgrims I met were there simply to get baptised in the River Jordan.

As well as talking to pilgrims, I also met young British Jews who were staying at the Sde Eliyahu Kibbutz south of Galilee. They won't be celebrating Christmas, of course, but they were all excited at the prospect of spending millennium night in Israel.

Problems in Nazareth

correspondent Jeremy Bowen
The second leg of my journey began in Nazareth. This, according to the Bible, was the starting point for Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace but there are problems in Nazareth because the Israeli Government has given Moslems permission to build a mosque yards from the Basilica of the Annunciation.

The Basilica is where Christians believe the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to Christ. It is regarded as one of Christianity's most important shrines, hence the row.

I travelled down to Jerusalem the following day. If there's to be peace, a solution has to be found to the problem of both Israelis and Palestinians claiming the city as their capital.

I visited the Wailing Wall - the most holy place in the world for the Jewish and the biggest symbol of Israel's claim to the city.

I only had to walk a few feet through a tunnel to get to the Al-Aqsa Mosque - the third holiest shrine in the Islamic world. That's a major reason why the Palestinians say that Jerusalem should be their capital.

Destination Bethlehem

Half an hour's drive away and I've reached my final destination, Bethlehem.

The Palestinians have been busy planting trees in time for the millennium celebrations and have spent more than one hundred million pounds smartening the place up.

They're hoping that a couple of million tourists will visit during millennium year.

The Church of the Nativity is the highlight of any visit to Bethlehem. I went to the grotto - the place where Christians believe Jesus was born almost 2000 years ago.

I think Bethlehem is a wonderful place. It has a sincerity and spirituality even if you are not religious and it's somewhere that everyone ought to experience at least once in their lives.

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