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 the residents of an ancient city, mired in modern political turmoil.

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

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

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

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

But in the modern saga, Israel quickly arranged papers for the two men, Peter Thiep, a 43-year-old Sudanese refugee studying in the United States, and John Prosper Kwenda, 28, a social worker from Zimbabwe, who also plays professional soccer with the Charlotte Eagles of North Carolina.

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

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

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

The recreation of the ancient journey was the longtime dream of the wealthy 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 way to Bethlehem across desolate expanses of the Judean Desert, camping alongside a number of ancient desert monasteries and shrines, under overcast skies that frequently burst forth with rain.

``They're sleeping in Bedouin tents, but we've tested them and they're pretty water tight,'' observed Sami Awad, director of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, which is coordinating local arrangements 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 have brought a message of goodwill and humanitarian aid to the peoples of the Middle East. Via a Web site, Journey of the Magi, the organizers of the trek have been raising funds for humanitarian aid projects in the Middle East.

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

``These are people who are courageous, hospitable and friendly rather than the terrorists, fighters and disrupters that is their image in the West.''

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

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

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

Isolated villagers reacted with great excitement to the sight of Westerners on the camels, following them on their trail and showering them with offers of hospitality.

``In Iraq, where the U.S. has bombed, where we have pushed the embargo, and persecuted in whatever way we can, people invited us into their houses, offered us food and tea. That was the highlight for us, for people to be that warm, that forgiving,'' Elkins said.

``When you're driving along in a car at 70 miles an hour, you don't have really the chance to interact with people,'' he added. ``When you are walking or riding on a camel you get to see what people are really like.''

But the caravan trek, which was carefully coordinated with the governments of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, largely bypassed Israel. That, said Israeli authorities, ultimately led to the delay in granting visas to Thiep and Kwenda, since the visa requests had been submitted to Palestinian liaison officials, rather than directly to Israel.

The caravan also opted to sidestep the disputed city of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. But Awad maintained that it was Jerusalem's snarled traffic -- even more than the political tangles -- that prompted organizers to steer clear of the city.

``Can you imagine bringing a camel caravan through a big city?'' Awad said. ``We decided that the desert route is more in keeping with the atmosphere.''

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