(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

ROME, 18 February — Continuing its deliberations this afternoon at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Bethlehem 2000 International Conference heard calls for lasting peace and mutual trust and understanding in the Middle East, for mutual understanding and tolerance and for a non-violent third millennium of compassion and partnership. Speakers were addressing the theme "Celebrating the new millennium in a global vision of peace and reconciliation".

Said Kamal, Assistant Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, said he hoped that the millennium celebrations would have a worldwide dimension. The establishment of peace and justice were part and parcel of the message of the revealed religions, and these values were to be found in Jesus Christ's message for spreading peace and solidarity through the world and bringing justice. The Bethlehem 2000 Project was in the spirit of this message.

He said the League of Arab States extended its support to the Palestinian cause and sympathized with their sufferings under occupation. They were watching the region, the seizure of land and the construction of illegal settlements closely. These would have profound social and economic effects, and it was important for such Arab towns as Bethlehem to recover from the ravages of violence and instability and return to a normal way of life as soon as possible.

He stated that the Palestinian Authority had abided by the Wye Plantation Accords, while the Israelis had found excuses to delay the prompt implementation of the peace process, which was now a moral, apostolic imperative that the Arab community was responding.

Monsignor Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the meeting that the arrival of the third millennium was a time of grace, blessed by God, for the religious and for non-believers alike, particularly for the city of Bethlehem.

Its inhabitants experienced daily hardship and worry over employment, health care and education, and a spiritual and moral battle, the Patriarch said. He stressed that the temptation to emigrate was great, the poor and those suffering from the absence of peace were numerous, and the Jubilee celebrations would inevitably focus international attention on their plight.

The Patriarch said the world would come to Bethlehem as pilgrims, where they would see into the past and reflect on the existence of the city's present inhabitants. The millennium was almost upon us, and the various religious communities and political leaders must lose no further time in securing the justice and equality which would usher in a new era of lasting peace and mutual trust and understanding in the region.

Reverend Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States, said Christ's status as a prophet was recognized by Christians and Muslims alike, and the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ would be an occasion for the celebration of His message.

But Christ's followers had failed to live up to the greatest of his teachings — to love one another, she said. The advent of the third millennium was, therefore, also a time to reflect on His message of justice, peace and love and compare this with the brutal conflicts that have persisted over the centuries. The search for mutual understanding and tolerance must now be one of the contemporary world's highest priorities.

The United Nations formed one of the best existing mechanisms for the international community to seek peace and justice, and people in the United States were well aware of the Palestinian people's struggle, she said. The Bethlehem 2000 Project captured the spirit of the millennium, and the Reverend hoped that it would be an occasion to rebuild an ecumenical Church of Christ.

In an address delivered by Reverend Father Archpriest Victor Petlyuchenko, Deputy Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, Moscow Patriarchate, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and all Russia, told the Conference that the problems Bethlehem faced on the eve of the twenty-first century formed a great opportunity for international cooperation for the benefit of the generations that will live in it.

The Patriarch said that now, more than ever, different religions, nations and cultures needed to recognize the interconnection of events influencing people's lives and adopt a joint approach to solving the major problems of the present and the future.

He said that dialogue was needed between all nations living in the Holy Land to facilitate reconciliation amongst them. Furthermore, the preservation of the ancient city of Bethlehem was the duty not only of Christians, but of all those who loved and respected the culture and history of the region. The Patriarch said the Russian Orthodox Church gave its full support to this worthwhile task, and pledged to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority to fulfil it.

The message of Pope Shenouda III, read by Cardinal Anba Moussa, General Archpriest, stated that Christians, Muslims and Jews were all sons of Abraham.

He said his Church wished to celebrate the millennium with joy, but that this joy would be incomplete while their Palestinian brothers were deprived of their rights and Israel had not withdrawn from the West Bank, the Syrian Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. He said that peace was a state of mind and asked Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, in accordance with the agreements it had signed.

That God had prepared the leader of Palestine, Yasser Arafat, and had protected him, showed the justness of the Palestinian cause, he said. Muslims did not seek a change to the population structure in Israel or Jerusalem, but called on the United States, the Russian Federation and the European Union to make every effort to bring the desired peace. He pledged support to the Bethlehem 2000 project, saying that its ecumenical spirit would bring prosperity.

The Metropolitan of Switzerland, Damaskinos Papandreou, Representative of His All Holiness Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, told the meeting that peaceful coexistence for the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam had been compromised by sad memories of the past and opportunism in the present.

Peoples' aspirations to coexist peacefully in the Middle Eastern region were being constantly put on trial, he said. The Bethlehem 2000 Project came at a critical juncture in the Palestinian people's struggle for basic human rights, and also in the entire peace process.

Bethlehem and the Holy Land had always symbolized hope, although the adversity of the moment had frequently clouded men's vision and triggered outbursts of blind religious fanaticism and intolerance. On the eve of the third millennium, the beacon of hope for universal social justice and human rights was shining out.

Bethlehem had always been a destination for pilgrims from different faiths, and the recent General Assembly resolution to support the Project showed the international community's will to celebrate the anniversary of Christ's birth in a spirit of brotherhood, freedom of worship and good will.

Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, President of the Islamic Cultural Centre, Rome, said that according to the teachings of the Koran, "if we want peace we must trust God", and the millennium celebrations placed mankind on a direct path to God.

He said that despite the arguments surrounding His birth, Christ might have been one of the greatest miracles ever. Relations between Muslims and Christians were governed by the Covenant of Omar, which existed for over 14 centuries. Christianity and Islam were complementary religions that emerged from the Eastern Mediterranean basin, and Christians and Muslims needed to work together in a spirit of fraternity and respect for the Covenant, despite differences arising from political circumstances.

They must be guided by noble objectives drawn from the revealed religions and must abide by justice in their political and personal lives, he said. Islam supported the need to protect individuals from the denial of their human rights, and the genocide in the Balkans and elsewhere this century had demonstrated the value of the existence and objectives of the United Nations.

Dwain C. Epps, Director, Programme Unit III — Justice, Peace and Creation, World Council of Churches, said his organization warmly endorsed the Bethlehem 2000 Project. It should be welcomed as an opportunity to build strong foundations for peace by narrowing the economic gap between Israel and Palestine.

Economic disparity and struggles over the control of vital land continued to sow the seeds of animosity, violence and insecurity. For this reason, any just and lasting peace in the region must be built on comprehensive economic development and political agreements that were in the national and strategic interests of both peoples, he stressed.

Reverend Naim Ateek, Director of Sabeel, Jerusalem, told the Conference that the year 2000 was more than a celebration of Christianity, or the end of the second millennium. It had a broader significance, and helped focus world attention on Palestine and the Palestinian people, both Muslims and Christians. The Jubilee was an occasion to remember their half-century struggle for justice and peace under Israeli occupation and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements through the confiscation of land.

A crippled peace process lacked the proper ingredients for a just peace, and a vision of hope inspired by Christ's teachings and life was needed for the Palestinians, as well as for billions of people who would soon stand on the threshold of the new century.

Of a total of 15 million refugees today, 5 million were Palestinians, who led a miserable existence, living in the hope of returning to their homeland. Without justice, especially economic justice, there could be no peace or security. Bethlehem 2000 inspired the world to religious reconciliation and a non-violent third millennium of compassion and partnership.

Omar Massalah, Director, Coordination Unit for Action in Favour of the Palestinian People, Representative of the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said Bethlehem 2000 represented a unique occasion for the Palestinian people to project a pacific and welcoming image to the world.

Bethlehem symbolized future prosperity, progress and peace for Palestinians and for the whole of the Middle East. Peace was the vocation of this ancient city, which would spearhead a service economy in the region through the development of cultural tourism in the Holy Land.

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Document symbol: GA/PAL/793
Document Type: Press Release
Document Sources: Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP)
Subject: Bethlehem 2000
Publication Date: 18/02/1999