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The BBC's Hilary Andersson
"The event has been a huge boost for Mr Arafat"
 real 28k

Friday, 7 January, 2000, 10:17 GMT
Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas

Priests Orthodox priests form a procession outside the Church of the Nativity

Leaders of the Christian Orthodox Church from around the world are celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem.

In the town where Jesus Christ is said to have been born, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat joined representatives of the 15 Orthodox Churches in a morning service.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin also attended the service at the Church of the Nativity, along with several other heads of state.

Yasser Arafat Yasser Arafat welcomes the Belarus president
On Thursday Mr Arafat also attended midnight mass with church and state leaders from six Orthodox countries.

The gathering marks a bid for unity among the world's sometimes fractious Eastern Orthodox churches.

They held their first synod in 60 years on Thursday in Jerusalem. It was their first ever in the Holy Land.

As church bells pealed at midnight mass on Thursday, host Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I of Jerusalem led Mr Arafat into the recesses of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a cave where tradition says Jesus was born.

Mr Arafat, a Muslim, lit a candle.

The Orthodox celebrations have been enlivened by visits of Eastern European heads of state, including Mr Yeltsin who stepped down last week as president.

Boris Yeltsin Boris Yeltsin speaks to an aide in Jerusalem
Mr Yeltsin was named a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Thursday.

Due to differences in the calendar, Orthodox Christmas falls on 7 January.

Orthodoxy's traditional domain includes more than 200 million worshippers and encompasses Russia, much of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and some regions around the Black Sea.

About half the Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel celebrate Christmas according to the Eastern calendar.

Elaborate headpieces

The patriarchs led a procession to Bethlehem's Manger Square earlier on Thursday.

Greek Orthodox priests wore red cloaks embroidered with gold thread. Russian Orthodox priests marched in their long black robes and elaborate headpieces.

Thousands of spectators, undeterred by the chilly weather, watched the procession from behind police barricades.

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