ASSEMBLY CALLS ON INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY TO
SUPPORT FOR CELEBRATION OF NEW MILLENNIUM IN
BETHLEHEM FROM CHRISTMAS 1999 TO EASTER 2001
Estimating Cost of 2000 Bethlehem Project at $336 Million,
Observer for Palestine says 2 Million Will Mark New Millennium in Bethlehem
Welcoming the celebration in Bethlehem of Jesus Christ's birth and the onset of the third millennium as a symbol of peace among all people, the General Assembly this morning voiced support for the Bethlehem 2000 Project, undertaken by the Palestinian Authority to mark the events.
The Assembly called on the international community to increase assistance to ensure the success of the project — a commemoration of the new millennium to be held in Bethlehem from Christmas 1999 to Easter 2001 — by the terms of the resolution adopted this morning, without a vote. Also, the Secretary-General was asked to mobilize increased United Nations efforts to that end.
Expressing the need for immediate change in the situation on the ground in the vicinity of Bethlehem, the Assembly also expressed the hope for rapid progress in the Middle East peace process and the achievement of the final settlement between the Palestinian and Israeli sides within the agreed time, so that the millennium may be celebrated in an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation.
The observer for Palestine told the Assembly it was estimated that 2 million visitors would come to Bethlehem to celebrate the new millennium. Unfortunately, Bethlehem, like all other Palestinian cities, had suffered under the long and harsh years of occupation. With the total programme cost for the project, excluding private sector activities and development, estimated at $336 million, he said, the Palestinian people alone could not mount the concerted efforts, or provide the careful planning and sufficient monetary funding which were basic prerequisites for the success of the Bethlehem 2000 celebration.
The representative of Israel, speaking in explanation of position after the resolution's adoption, said Israel embraced the opportunity to host a historic gathering of Christian pilgrims, marking the 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus in the ancient land then known as Judea. Having already invested nearly $1 billion to lay the groundwork for that event, Israel stood ready to cooperate with the Christian and Arab community on the Bethlehem 2000 Project.
In addition to contributing thousands of dollars to improve the conditions of the Bethlehem area, his Government had proposed joint measures with the Palestinian Authority.
However, he said Israel found it most unfortunate that the universally inspiring occasion had been tainted by political agendas to advance the interests of one side at the expense of the peace process. But for a few unfortunate phrases and terminology, the draft text could have reflected the universal importance of the event and received unqualified support. Instead, a purely religious occasion had been cynically manipulated to advance a narrow political interest.
The representative of Senegal, in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, introduced the draft text on Bethlehem 2000, expressing the hope shared by many speakers this morning that the event would mark a new era of dialogue, reconciliation and economic recovery for Palestine, Israel and the Middle East. Noting that broad international support for the project had been expressed during a May conference in Belgium, he said more needed to be done. The international conference on Bethlehem 2000 planned for early next year in Rome would promote the initiative and ensure the broadest international participation.
The representative of Cuba said that the initiative was an important catalyst towards reconstruction and development as mankind prepared to embark on a new millennium. If the event was to lead to peace, it was essential for the United Nations to give its full support. The representative of Cyprus added that the initiative came at a crucial juncture in the evolution of the Middle East conflict. The Bethlehem 2000 celebration would bring economic benefits to the Palestinian people, who needed to see the practical results of the peace dividend, since their economic prosperity was a necessary underpinning for lasting peace.
Statements were also made on that issue by Austria, on on behalf of the European Union and associated countries; Malta; Malaysia; Afghanistan; Swaziland; Norway; Yemen; Egypt and Peru. The observer from the Holy See also spoke.
Assembly Work Programme
The General Assembly meets this morning to review the situation in Central America and to consider, for the for the first time, Bethlehem 2000.
In taking up this new agenda item, the Assembly will review the work on the "Bethlehem 2000 Project" launched by the Palestinian National Authority to celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ and the onset of the new millennium. The Project is preparing for a commemoration to begin at Christmas 1999 and conclude at Easter 2001.
According to a May letter requesting the item's inclusion in the current agenda sent from the Bureau of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People to the Secretary-General (document A/53/141), the event is important not only for Palestinian people and for the region, but also for religious believers of the world and for the international community. The occasion reflects a multidimensional character as it comprises a significant religious, historical and cultural dimension, as well as a contemporary dimension, marking the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third millennium for humankind.
A high committee for the Bethlehem 2000 Project had been established, headed by Yasser Arafat, with many religious authorities, individuals and institutions from around the world directly engaged in the planning and preparation. It is expected that approximately two million visitors will visit Bethlehem to honour its legacy and the Project envisages six programme components: events; infrastructure; services; cultural heritage; tourism and private sector development. The Project will require a high degree of engagement by the international community in organizing, financing, technical contributions and participation in the commemorative events and activities.
In efforts to mobilize international support for the event, the Chairman of the Committee on the Rights of the Palestinian People, Ibra Deguène Ka (Senegal), says that the Government of Italy has agreed to the Committee's request to hold the International Forum Bethlehem 2000 in Rome in late February or mid-March 1999. Similarly, the Government of Namibia will hold an African meeting at Windhoek, in late April 1999. The Bureau is now in the process of drawing up the provisional programmes for the meetings. Inclusion of the item in the Assembly's fifty-third agenda was also requested in the letter from members of the Bureau of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
By the terms of the related draft resolution (document A/53/L.37) the Assembly would express support for the Bethlehem 2000 Project and commend the efforts undertaken by the Palestinian Authority in this regard. It would request the Secretary-General to mobilize the United Nations system to increase their efforts towards ensuring the success of the Bethlehem 2000 Project. It would also decide to include the item in the provisional agenda of its fifty-fourth session so that it may have the renewed opportunity to reaffirm its further support for the event immediately prior to the occasion of its commemoration.
The co-sponsors of the resolution are: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Chile, Comoros, Cuba, Cyprus, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Malta, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Yemen and Palestine.
IBRA DEGUENE KA (Senegal), in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said the arrival of a new millennium brought with it the hope for an era of peace and understanding. The commemoration of the next millennium was particularly symbolic, coming at a time when the people of the region hoped the question of Palestine would be resolved peacefully and lead to peace and prosperity in the region. It was hoped that the commemoration would welcome a new era of dialogue, reconciliation and economic recovery for Palestine, Israel and the Middle East.
Unfortunately, decades of conflict had negatively affected the infrastructure of the town, he said. Many buildings needed restoration and infrastructure needed to be rebuilt. At the Conference held in Belgium in May, attended by Yasser Arafat, participants had demonstrated broad international support for the project. Donor governments, the European Commission, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Bank, media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also showed their support.
The level of contributions so far was encouraging, but more needed to be done to ensure success, at a time when the Palestinian people still faced serious difficulties, he said. The Committee felt that actual improvements in the areas surrounding Bethlehem were required, especially in freedom of movement for all people. The Committee, with the Italian Government, had organized an international conference on Bethlehem 2000, in Rome for early next year, to promote the initiative and ensure the broadest international participation. The events marking the commemoration would begin at Christmas 1999 and would continue until Easter 2001.
In introducing the draft text, he said that Algeria, Guyana and Niger had joined as co-sponsors. Also, there was a revision in the first preambular paragraph. The words "Bethlehem, in the Palestinian land" should be replaced with the words "in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem". A consensus adoption would contribute to promoting and supporting the peace process.
NASSER AL-KIDWA, observer for Palestine, said that the city of Bethlehem, Palestine, was of symbolic prominence. The achievement of a dignified, resplendent and celebratory commemoration, fitting for such a historic occasion, was clearly of great importance. It was estimated that approximately 2 million visitors would come to Bethlehem to celebrate the new millennium. However, the Palestinian people could not achieve all that was required on their own.
Unfortunately, the city of Bethlehem, like all other Palestinian cities, had suffered under the long and harsh years of occupation, he continued. Strident and concerted efforts, careful planning and sufficient monetary funding were basic and essential prerequisites for the success of the Bethlehem 2000 celebration. The estimated total programme cost for the project, excluding private sector activities and development, was $336 million. The Bethlehem 2000 conference in Brussels in May had provided an opportunity for Governments, the private sector, the international financial community, religious and cultural institutions and the media to make financial contributions and investments to the project and to provide expertise and promote international awareness. Continued and increased participation by the international community would be highly beneficial in the fields of general organization of the occasion, financial and technical contributions for the preparation, and actual participation in the events and activities.
ERNST SUCHARIPA (Austria), speaking on behalf of the European Union and the associated countries of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Liechtenstein, welcomed the Bethlehem 2000 Project, which foresaw the restoration of historical, archaeological and religious sites of importance. At the same time, the tourist sector would undergo important improvements. The European Union was pleased to note that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had expanded its ten- year-old programme on infrastructural improvements in the Bethlehem area to support the Project. Among other donors, the World Bank had made an important contribution to the project with a view to strengthening the economic and cultural base of the Bethlehem-area municipalities and fostering their sustainable development.
In May 1998, a Conference on Bethlehem 2000 had been convened in Brussels in association with the European Commission, UNDP, UNESCO and the World Bank, he said. The main purpose of the Conference had been to stimulate commitments from officials and private donors, as well as potential investors from the private sector. The Conference concluded with donors making a series of important pledges to the project.
Early next year, an international forum on Bethlehem 2000 would take place in Rome, under the auspices of the United Nations with the support of the Italian Government, he said. The forum would promote a global vision of peace and reconciliation on the eve of the new millennium. Those efforts would support further dialogue among the peoples of the Middle East and mobilize further international support for the project. The European Union was providing financial support to the project, as well as for specific projects in the area. The European Commission was providing about European Currency Unit (ECU) 2 million for the upgrading of the infrastructural network. The major religious, historic and cultural dimension of the event would require unimpeded access to holy places in Bethlehem. In conclusion, he reaffirmed the firm commitment of the European Union to a just and comprehensive settlement in the Middle East, based on the Madrid and Oslo accords. Recognizing the importance of a sound economy for social and political stability among the Palestinian people, the European Union would continue its economic and technical assistance.
GEORGE SALIBA (Malta) said that the approach of the new millennium was essentially a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in the city of Bethlehem. Peace on earth was an important and timeless message and should be the central theme of the proposed Millennium Assembly. Substantial financial contributions had been made or pledged towards making the event a success, and his Government would consider what assistance it could give to contribute to the celebration.
His delegation, however, reiterated that there could be no celebration without reconciliation, he said. The upcoming important celebration would have no value if the peace process didn't have the desired results. The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ should be a catalyst to further consolidate the peace process. Would it not be sad if the land of the nativity was still at war 2000 years after that momentous event? he asked.
SHAMSUDIN ABDULLAH (Malaysia) said that Bethlehem was revered by the followers of the great religions. As the birthplace of the great Prophet, the Commemoration in Bethlehem would be a symbol of hope and peace for all peoples around the world to usher in the new millennium. If there existed any misunderstanding between cultures and beliefs, the Bethlehem 2000 Project would provide the opportunity for everyone to come together in a cross-cultural international effort to place things in the correct perspective. It was an occasion to rebuild and reinforce bridges of trust, mutual understanding, friendship and cooperation between peoples of various religions, cultures and nationalities.
The Project would also underscore the need to restore justice and dignity to the people of Palestine, whose on-going struggle for peace had endured, despite the obstacles which faced them, he said. It was the duty of the international community to continue to put the question of Palestine in its correct perspective. The process by which the rights of the Palestinian people were to be realized, in particular the right of self-determination, national sovereignty and independence, must be fully respected. His delegation hoped that all relevant actors would join in the efforts to ensure the success of the Project.
RAVAN A.G. FARHADI (Afghanistan) said that the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ would be important not only for Christians, but also for all of humankind, for it would spread the message of peace and love around the world. The Islamic nations, including Afghanistan, respected deeply that sacred occasion. As Muslims, they believed in continuity of divine revelation. Jesus was the messenger of the one and only God. The holy Koran taught that in several passages. There were over one billion Muslims in the world who believed that the teachings of Jesus were based on the same revelation as the one given the Prophet of Islam, and to Abraham and Moses.
To see Bethlehem 2000 as the site for commemoration of that source gave immense hope to the peoples of the world, he continued. It was clear that there must be free access to Bethlehem for citizens of all nationalities. He paid tribute to the Palestinians for undertaking that immense project and expressed hope that the draft would be adopted by consensus.
BRUNO RODRIGUEZ PARRILLA (Cuba) said that as mankind prepared to embark on a new millennium, any initiative to promote peace in the Middle East had to receive support. Occupied Palestinian territories were still under occupation. Some 3.5 million Palestinian people continued to live in refugee camps. The initiative was an important catalyst towards reconstruction and development.
Bethlehem was a town of great historic and religious significance. The explanatory memorandum sent by the Committee had recommended the inclusion of the new item on the agenda and stressed how important it was to mark the event for the Palestinians.
If the initiative was to lead to action for peace, it was essential for the United Nations to give full support to the event, he said. Several bodies had become involved through financial and technical contributions. However, more needed to be done since two million people were expected. The recent Conference in Belgium was an important first stage for mobilizing support for the project. Cuba supported the Conference to be held in Rome next year. To ensure the success of that Conference, the United Nations had to strive to achieve the largest international participation possible. The draft reflected a possible minimum basis for consensus on the project. He urged all delegations to join the consensus on the draft.
SOTIRIOS ZACKHEOS (Cyprus) said the initiative came at a crucial juncture in the evolution of the Middle East conflict and he hoped it would strengthen reconciliation and cooperation in the region. The Bethlehem 2000 anniversary celebration would also bring economic benefits to the Palestinian people, who needed to see the practical results of the peace dividend since their economic prosperity was a necessary underpinning for lasting peace.
Cyprus hoped that the United Nations as a whole would display explicit support for the initiative and thus affirm the engagement of the international community in a project of worldwide significance, he said. The multidimensional character of the initiative, which combined religious, cultural and artistic celebrations and was to bring together the believers of the world on the eve of the new millennium, made the event a moment for peaceful coexistence, prosperity and hope for all mankind. The people of Cyprus drew inspiration from the event since they were living with the vision of a free, united and demilitarized Cyprus without foreign troops, as a member of the European family, with mutual respect between the two communities, in a democratic, multicultural and tolerant country.
MOSES MATHENDELE DLAMINI (Swaziland) said that the inclusion of such an agenda item was of paramount relevance to the time and indeed to all mankind. He congratulated the Palestinian Authority for their insightfulness and spiritual view in making the project a reality. Bethlehem 2000 would remind the international community of the historical background and importance of that part of the world.
Christians, like himself, would ponder God's love through the birth of the child, the Saviour of Mankind, he continued, and go to the grave of Jesus, whose birthday would be celebrated in Bethlehem. The Project was associated with "his" mystery. Not a single scholar today could decipher that mystery, as only those in God could understand and appreciate the connotations of Bethlehem 2000. As the Bible dictated, the child not only shook the world, but was the saviour of all mankind. Swaziland called upon the world to support all efforts leading to that magnanimous project. Recalling the wise men who came to Bethlehem to present gifts to the baby Jesus, he called upon the international community to bring their gifts to that part of the world and support the project. Jesus Christ who died and resurrected should be the guide to all, including the United Nations.
OLE PETER KOLBY (Norway), said the Bethlehem 2000 Project was an ambitious programme of cultural and religious celebration, urban and economic rejuvenation and tourist development and promotion. It was an opportunity to broaden donor nations' commitment to reconciliation in the Middle East. It was also an opportunity to focus on the reconstruction and development efforts for the Palestinians. Norway had pledged $3 million towards the project and was also considering additional funding. Norwegian support would be channelled towards the energy sector and rehabilitation of the roads and the old city.
MOHAMED AL-SINDI (Yemen) said the importance attached to the agenda item on Bethlehem 2000 testified to the great interest of the international community in that project. The Palestinian city of Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus Christ. His delegation associated itself with the co-sponsors of the draft and believed that helping organize that celebration was very important. He invited the Secretary-General to make efforts to ensure the success of the event.
His delegation believed that the commemoration of that major event was a decisive turning point from an era of injustice and occupation to one of hope and peace. The success of the project would ensure access of people of all religions to the area of the most important historic site. The freedom of movement would be a symbol of hope for everybody. He hoped the draft would be adopted by consensus.
MAGED A. ABDEL AZIZ (Egypt) said that in less than two years, all peace-loving people would commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. The commemoration was of historical, religious and cultural significance, not only for the Palestinian people and the region, but also for the entire world. It would take place in Bethlehem and bring together people from all over the world under the banner of tolerance, unity and hope. It would also reflect a spirit of peace, which they were trying to establish in the Middle East. The United Nations would have an impact on the success of the activities, including the restoration of city structures and infrastructure. There were also plans to provide tourist services for the two million people expected.
Egypt supported the draft and trusted that everyone, including the international private sector, would be involved, he said. Egypt also hoped the Secretary-General would mobilize support from the United Nations system. His delegation further hoped that the peace process would continue on the road leading to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace. He hoped there would be consensus on the draft, so peace could prevail in Bethlehem in 2000.
FERNANDO GUILLEN (Peru) said he was taking part in the Project due to its symbolic and religious nature. The commemoration required profound and mutual respect, which moved Peru to support the faiths of all peoples. Free access to places deemed sacred was of fundamental importance. The best way of paying tribute to the celebrations would be for peace and reconciliation to be carried out on an urgent basis in that region.
RENATO R. MARTINO, Observer for the Holy See, said Bethlehem 2000 presented a global vision of hope and peace. Today, his delegation wished to recognize and celebrate the history and the future of "this little town that is such an important symbol for so many people". The 2000th anniversary of Jesus Christ's birth in Bethlehem was an opportunity to rekindle trust in a human family, united in fellowship and solidarity, devoid of any greed for power and conquest.
He said that at the threshold of the third millennium, Bethlehem inspired new hope. In it was a universal message, addressed to its inhabitants and to all people of the world, calling them to commit themselves to preserving and sharing the gift of peace. Peace would become a reality if "we enter the new millennium as people of good will". The wounds of the past could be healed if love was understood and lived to the fullest. Human destiny would be brighter and more promising when solidarity became a principle accepted by all. Above all, the new millennium could be distinguished by its respect for life and human dignity.
Action on Draft
The Acting-President of the Assembly, Alfonso Ortega Urbina (Nicaragua), announced that additional sponsors to the draft included Argentina, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Russian Federation, Peru, Vanuatu, Belarus, Benin, France, Italy, Portugal, El Salvador, Greece, Spain and Ireland.
The Assembly then adopted the resolution as orally revised, without a vote.
DORE GOLD (Israel) speaking in explanation of position, said that Israel embraced the opportunity to host a historic gathering of Christian pilgrims, marking the 2,000 years since the birth of Jesus in the ancient land then known as Judea. His Government, through its newly formed 2000 Authority, had spent the past few years laying the groundwork for that event and had invested close to $1 billion. A variety of projects, tours, travel and hotel plans, had been launched to make the event as rewarding as possible for Christian pilgrims.
His country followed a proud tradition of promoting religious freedom in Israel, he continued. As a group persecuted for centuries and denied access to its most cherished holy sites, the Jewish people felt strongly about the need to protect the religious sites of all people. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, it had enabled all groups to enjoy, without limit, the benefit of the holy places in its jurisdiction, making them the freest and most accessible in two millennia. The Christian community, for example, had enjoyed unlimited rights of religious activity and control in the holy sites of Jerusalem and Nazareth, and others throughout the country.
Bethlehem 2000 would be no exception, as Israel stood ready to cooperate with the Christian and Arab communities in that endeavour, he added. His Government had started plans for improving transportation and lodging, among other things, to enhance the Project. In particular, it had proposed joint measures with the Palestinian Authority, and had contributed thousands of dollars to improve the conditions of the Bethlehem area. The Government awaited their agreement to cooperate.
Israel found it most unfortunate, he said, that this universally inspiring occasion had been tainted by political agendas to advance the interests of one side, at the expense of the peace process. But, for a few unfortunate phrases and terminology, the draft resolution could have reflected the universal importance of the event and received unqualified support. Instead, a purely religious occasion had been cynically manipulated to advance a narrow political interest.
That divisive manipulation was part of an initiative advanced by the Palestinian Observer Mission to the United Nations, he said. Although it was clear to all that Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on the ground was essential for the project's success, cooperation in drafting the resolution was not even considered. That was unfortunate, as the Oslo accords and Wye River Memorandum had specifically required that permanent status issues be addressed in bilateral negotiations. Also of regret was the fact that the current initiative stood in direct contradiction to the commitment given by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at Wye to refrain from taking steps that changed the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Clearly, the resolution was part of an effort to advance a unilateralist alternative to a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. AL-KIDWA, Observer for Palestine, exercising his right of reply, said there was no need to repeat that the statement just heard ran counter to the general trend seen today. He remained convinced that despite what was just said, the best option for all was not to spoil the precious consensus just arrived at, which had made it possible to adopt such an important resolution. Therefore, he would not answer many of the mistakes submitted in the statement just heard.
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