(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

ROME, 18 February — The opening session of the Bethlehem 2000 International Conference, sponsored by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and supported by the Italian Government, was held today at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). On 17 February, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro of Italy received the delegation of the Committee on Palestinian Rights People at the Quirinale Palace.

The Bethlehem 2000 Project, established by the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of its President Yasser Arafat in March 1997, aims to celebrate the new millennium in Bethlehem, a town of great historic and religious significance, in a global vision of peace and reconciliation. It is hoped that some 2 million pilgrims and tourists from many different countries and faiths will visit Bethlehem between Christmas 1999 and Easter 2001 to celebrate Jesus Christ's birth there 2000 years ago and the onset of the third millennium, together with the Palestinian people.

The Bethlehem 2000 Project has become a high-priority programme for the regeneration of Bethlehem, and will also benefit the neighbouring towns of Bit Sahara and Bit Jala. Since early 1997, donor governments, the European Commission, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Bank have been providing concrete assistance through the provision and allocation of funds, and the launching of approximately 100 projects in the areas of cultural heritage and events, infrastructure, services, economy and tourism. It is estimated that the Project will cost some $336 million.

The Bethlehem 2000 Conference aims to provide an opportunity for Governments, intergovernmental organizations, parliamentarians, religious and cultural personalities and institutions, the private sector, the international aid community and non-governmental organizations to engage in further dialogue and cooperation for the promotion of peace and reconciliation in the region. It also aims to review the Project's status, needs and future prospects, and to promote public support and participation, to ensure that the initiative is an international success.

Francesco Rutelli, Mayor of Rome, told the meeting that all roads have always led to Rome, but that a long time ago a poor carpenter took a road which led to Bethlehem and to a radical change in the history of the world: the birth of Jesus Christ and his message of peace and love. The rehabilitation of the historic city and the creation of employment and peace in the region were closely linked to development, particularly of tourism, and the visits of millions of pilgrims, all of whom wanted to see the much loved Holy Land, would contribute to this.

In a message delivered by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that the Palestinian city of Bethlehem would be at the centre of the momentous millennium celebrations. Yet, while the historic and sacred meaning of Bethlehem shone like a lodestar in our consciousness, the ancient city was in dire need of rehabilitation. The majority of its population of more than 125,000 lived in dismal conditions, the Secretary-General said.

While progress had been made in improving the municipal infrastructure and public services and in preserving the town's rich archaeological, cultural and historical heritage, Bethlehem could not presently cope with the huge influx of around two million visitors expected for the millennium, he said. For this reason, the Bethlehem 2000 Project of the Palestinian Authority was crucial to ensuring the success of the millennium celebrations.

The Conference further manifested the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People's long-standing commitment to a comprehensive, just and lasting negotiated settlement of the question of Palestine. But the Secretary-General stressed that a truly lasting and durable peace in the Middle East could only be achieved if Palestinians and Israelis strove to forgive the transgressions of the past, built bridges of tolerance and trust and strengthened partnerships.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, President of the Committee for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and Head of the Holy See delegation, drew the Conference's attention to the fact that General Assembly resolution 53/27 of 18 November 1998 on the Bethlehem 2000 Project was adopted without a vote. That was an extremely encouraging gesture of support towards the region by the international community, which he urged be followed through with the resources necessary to ensure the regions's prosperity.

It was no chance occurrence that the greatest event in the history of mankind, the birth of Christ, happened in the small village of Bethlehem, he said. The Cardinal pointed out that today the city has a special claim to celebrate the millennium and is the symbol of hospitality for all peoples and all cultures. Also, it was morally incumbent on the international community to show solidarity with all those who live in poverty and violence and to restore their human rights.

The birth and death of Christ were not events that could be consigned to the past, he stressed. His presence shone like a beacon and lit up the world. It was important that the Holy Land should be a peaceful and welcoming place for pilgrims, but peace was above all a basic necessity for the region's inhabitants, Muslims, Palestinians and Christians, and must come from peoples' hearts, he stressed.

AZEDDINE LARAKI, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said his organization had endorsed the peace process in the Middle East and the resolutions adopted at summit level to achieve this. But Israel's non-compliance with implementing the signed accords was immobilizing the peace process.

The continuous Israeli attempts to repudiate the peace process had resulted in the serious current situation of total deadlock in the region, which he agreed might develop into total chaos, as feared by the international community, he said. He reminded the Conference that the five-year transitional phase agreed upon in the Oslo Accords was due to expire on 4 May this year. It was high time that the world exerted pressure on Israel to respect international law, and ensure the just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East that was also needed to secure global political stability.

Mary, mother of Jesus, had a special place in Muslim hearts, and he hoped the Bethlehem 2,000 Project and the important international event represented by the millennium celebrations would bring about a new era of dialogue among the peoples of the area and further support and economic prosperity to the Palestinian people.

IBRA DEGUENE KA (Senegal), Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, told the Conference the message of Bethlehem was that of love, tolerance, reconciliation and global peace. Over time, Bethlehem had become a beacon of hope and comfort to millions of pilgrims. Christ's message was humankind's basic aspiration, irrespective of creed, race, gender or national identity, and resonated even more profoundly today than it did 2000 years ago.

He stressed that the millennium celebrations being organized by the Palestinian Authority headed by Chairman Arafat were of great historic and cultural importance, not only for Bethlehem and the Middle East, but also to the international community. These would usher in a new era of dialogue, economic prosperity and peace in the region and would restore the city of Bethlehem's monuments and revitalize its economy.

He said it was his firm hope that the third millennium would bring to an end decades of mistrust and suspicion, tension and violence, where people have not known peace and accord. Bethlehem must be a place where past and future met, where the peoples of the region joined hands and walked towards a peaceful and economically prosperous future.

JACQUES DIOUF, Director-General of FAO, told the Conference that Bethlehem was a true symbol of peace and reconciliation for the Middle Eastern region, but also for the whole world, and pledged FAO's full support for the Bethlehem 2000 Project. It was an initiative whose underlying values were peace and solidarity and the right to live in dignity, values shared by FAO in its work to free mankind from hunger and malnutrition. Like the Bethlehem 2000 Project, FAO's drive to reduce the number of the world's hungry and malnourished involved mobilizing all parts of civil society to complement the work of governments.

The fact that in Hebrew Bethlehem meant "house of bread" gave it a symbolic character for FAO, whose motto is "Fiat Panis" (Bread for All), he said. The decision to make Bethlehem a place where the values of fraternity, mutual comprehension and solidarity prevailed over differences was an example humanity needed now more than ever, and should be followed by all.

Jacques Baudin, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Senegal, said that the Bethlehem 2000 Project had received the support of the international community, including Senegal, and called upon international financial institutions, the donor community, the private sector and non-governmental organizations to contribute effectively to the Project.

Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and Palestine was both the crucible of the world's great civilizations and the cradle of the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, he pointed out. For these historical and cultural reasons, Bethlehem should remain a focus for peace and dialogue in that sensitive region.

The Project was not just a Palestinian one, he said, but the international community's, and had economic and social dimensions. It would improve the infrastructure of the city of Bethlehem, as well as restore important archaeological and historical sites and promote tourism. The Minister felt it was therefore important for governments to maintain their consensus on the Project, as agreed upon in General Assembly  resolution 53/27 of 18 November 1998, and to advance the peace process in the Middle East.

LAMBERTO DINI, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Italy, said Italy was watching events in the Middle East with interest and had a political commitment to the region. The Minister said Italy firmly believed that any fair, lasting and global solution to the Middle East conflict must be based on the principles enshrined in United Nations resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and 425 (1978), and in particular the return of the occupied territories in exchange for peace and Palestinian self-determination, without excluding the possibility of an independent Palestinian State.

The Minister reminded those present that the peace process had been suspended due to the forthcoming Israeli elections, but said he had no doubt that their outcome would strengthen determination to create a lasting peace, based on principles of mutually beneficial coexistence that sprang from Jewish thought. Peace was the only rational objective to strive for, he stressed.

The European Union must equip itself with a fully comprehensive strategy for the Mediterranean and the Middle East that will not only project its interests but also its methodologies, the Minister said. Italy was committed to ensuring progress on the sensitive issues of Jerusalem, water, refugees and borders, and by supporting the Palestinian economy and implementing the scheduled infrastructure work on the West Bank and Gaza.

The Bethlehem 2000 Project was of fundamental importance to the Palestinian people, he said. He stressed that guaranteeing freedom of movement and access to the holy places of the city by followers of all religions and nationalities would form an equally important contribution to dialogue in the region, which was often a contest between two sets of rights.

Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and President of the Palestinian Authority, thanked the United Nations, governments, intergovernmental and religious organizations, especially the Vatican, for making possible the great religious universal historical event of the millennium celebrations in Bethlehem. He also thanked the Eternal City of Rome, which he said had always been supportive of his people's struggle for freedom and independence.

Chairman Arafat said the region had been deprived of peace for many decades, and that he wanted to take the opportunity to thank his partner and companion in peace, Yitzak Rabin. Mr. Rabin had paid with his life for his trust in the peace of the brave, a process that the Chairman had continued, despite obstacles.

The Bethlehem 2000 Project was one which Palestinians had always considered a project of international significance, he said. The international community was supporting it precisely because of its religious, cultural and historical dimensions. He thanked the international community for General Assembly resolution 53/17 of 18 November 1998 on the Project.

The Chairman said wide international participation in these important religious and historic celebrations would have a profound effect on reinforcing the culture of peace. It should deepen the feelings of love and forgiveness needed to ensure justice for all in the Terra Sancta or Holy Land and a peaceful life for both the Palestinian and the Israeli peoples and their children. The Palestinian people's right to self-determination and the establishment of its independent State with Al-Quds Sharif (Holy Jerusalem) as its capital would be their contemporary message to posterity and to the future, he concluded.

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Document symbol: GA/PAL/792
Document Type: Press Release
Document Sources: Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP)
Subject: Bethlehem 2000
Publication Date: 19/02/1999