BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Dec. 21 (RNS) -- As the sun sets over Bethlehem on the first Christmas Day of the new millennium, ``Wise Men'' from distant lands are set to ride into the town astride camels, bearing ``gifts'' of goodwill for theresidents of an ancient city, mired in modern political turmoil.

The caravan of 21 male and female pilgrims will arrive here aftermaking a 1,000 mile overland journey from the Iraqi-Iranian border,retracing the trail that the New Testament's Wise Men, or Magi, werebelieved to have followed when they made their famous visit to thenewborn Jesus.

Over the journey's course, the trekkers camped in Bedouin tents inthe lush green fields along Iraq's Euphrates River, rode along the greenhills of the Jordan Valley and trod in winter rain storms this weekalong the last stretch between the West Bank cities of Jericho andBethlehem.

Two of the four men playing the modern roles of wise men almostdidn't make the last leg of the trek after Israel initially denied thementry Tuesday from Jordan, because they lacked visas.

The tangle with Israeli bureaucracy had an ironic parallel since insome versions of the traditional story, one of four wise men disappearsen route, and only three make it all of the way to Bethlehem.

But in the modern saga, Israel quickly arranged papers for the twomen, Peter Thiep, a 43-year-old Sudanese refugee studying in the UnitedStates, and John Prosper Kwenda, 28, a social worker from Zimbabwe, whoalso plays professional soccer with the Charlotte Eagles of NorthCarolina.

On Monday, a Palestinian sniper incident also delayed forhours the entry of the first members of the caravan into the Holy Land,after Israel closed down the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan intothe West Bank while military patrols scoured the area.

``We're used to long, tiring days, walking anywhere from 30 to 50kilometers, and sometimes the border crossing days are the most tiring.We're just glad to be here,'' said Andre Martinas, of Los Angeles, whowas one of the first trekkers to complete the Jordan River bridgecrossing, after waiting nearly all day at the border.

The 99-day long millennial trek across the Middle East began inearly September near a region of the Iranian-Iraqi border where the Magimay have first set out on their journey. A priestly class of PersianZoroastrian culture, known for their expertise in astronomy, the Magiwere said to have followed a ``star'' in the east.

The recreation of the ancient journey was the longtime dream of thewealthy northern Californian Christian philanthropist Robin Wainwright,who has worked for the past 10 years to see his vision realized.

In the week leading up to Christmas, the caravan was making its wayto Bethlehem across desolate expanses of the Judean Desert, campingalongside a number of ancient desert monasteries and shrines, underovercast skies that frequently burst forth with rain.

``They're sleeping in Bedouin tents, but we've tested them andthey're pretty water tight,'' observed Sami Awad, director of theBethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, which is coordinating localarrangements for the project.

While the ancient Magi were said to have carried gifts of gold,frankincense and myrrh to the Holy Family, these modern emissaries havebrought a message of goodwill and humanitarian aid to the peoples of theMiddle East. Via a Web site, Journey of the Magi, the organizers of the trek have been raising funds for humanitarian aid projects in the MiddleEast.

``This was an opportunity for three months to create a stage todepict the human face of these people, that would also honor Christ onhis 2,000 birthday,'' said Phil Elkins, a 61-year-old Pasadena, Calif.,entrepreneur who served as the director of the trek's overalloperations.

``These are people who are courageous, hospitable and friendlyrather than the terrorists, fighters and disrupters that is their imagein the West.''

Notably, the voyage was conceived to be a journey ofMuslim-Christian understanding, Elkins said. Each day of the trek wasnamed after one of the 99 names of God that is listed in the Koran. Manyof the Christian pilgrims joined their Muslim escorts and aides in thedawn-to-dusk fast now under way during the Muslim month of Ramadan --even though they were hiking miles every day. Most hikers wore whiteouter garments, a color of dress traditionally associated with theMuslim Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

``We wanted to bring about more unity, more peace, show that thereis more that holds us together than divides us,'' Elkins said.

Elkins said that he was astounded by the warm reception that thepredominantly American group of trekkers had received in Iraq, despitethe fact that the country had been the subject of repeated attacks inthe past by U.S. forces.

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