BETHLEHEM (RNS)-- Bearing gold-clad Bibles, candles and goblets ofpowdery incense, dozens of Christian Orthodox church patriarchs andbishops launched Christmas eve celebrations here Thursday (Jan. 6) inthe Church of the Nativity in an unprecedented display of unity amongsome of the world's oldest church bodies.

The Orthodox Christmas celebrations, the first major religiousfestivities in the Holy Land during the millennial year, also drewnearly a dozen political leaders from eastern Europe and the republicsof the former Soviet Union, including former Russian president BorisYeltsin, who arrived on Wednesday.

Yeltsin, who resigned two weeks ago from the presidency, is visitinghere on what has been described as a private religious visit.

"In the year 2000 of Christianity, I find myself in the Holy Landfor the first time," said the former Russian president exuberantly, justafter receiving the honor of the "Knights of the Holy Sepulcher" in aceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday morning hosted by Greek PatriarchDiodoros I.

Nonetheless, Yeltsin didn't hesitate to air his opinion on politicalmatters either, declaring Russia would continue its military offensiveagainst rebels in Chechnya and also support Palestinians in their questfor statehood.

"In a month or two we will have crushed the terrorists. We are notleaving Chechnya, no," said Yeltsin, following the awards ceremony thatalso included the presidents of Belarus, Georgia, and the Ukraine, aswell as leaders from the Balkan states of Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

Later, at a lunch with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafatin Bethlehem, Yeltsin hugged the Palestinian leader and declared:"Russia will do everything it can so that full peace and concord can beestablished in the Middle East ... Russia will not change its positionof helping Palestine to achieve statehood."

Thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims thronged the city'snewly renovated Nativity Square Thursday at noon to greet the arrival ofthe patriarchs, archbishops and bishops in the city of Jesus' birth. Thecelebrations coincided with the onset of Orthodox Christmas Eve, whichfalls on Jan. 6 according to the calendar observed by Orthodox churches.

Palestinian mounted police carrying small green, red and blackPalestinian flags escorted the limousines of guests to the ancientChurch of the Nativity, which dates back to the Byzantine era of the 6thcentury when Christianity was first institutionalized in the Holy Land.

An honor guard of Greek Orthodox priests, clad in orange brocadecloaks and carrying an enormous gold-bound Bible, led the delegationinto the church's main entrance, a tiny 4-foot-high passageway. Thedoor, dating back to the medieval period, was built to prevent MamelukeMuslim rulers from entering the sacred hall on horseback.

Led by the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople(Istanbul), the bishops and patriarchs chanted the liturgy in the Greek,Arabic and the Russian hymns of the Eastern liturgy, while longprocessions of priests encircled the church repeatedly swingingbell-decked goblets of powdery incense intended to "uplift" the spiritsof believers.

In Rome, meanwhile, Pope John Paul II dispatched personal Christmasgreetings to the Orthodox leadership massed in the Holy Land. Speakingto visitors at St. Peter's Square the pope said, "Thinking of all thechurches of the Christian Orient, I extend my wish for prosperity andjoy."

The arrival of the Orthodox leadership has proven a morale boosterfor many Christians in the local Bethlehem and Jerusalem communities,whose numbers have been radically depleted by years ofIsraeli-Palestinian political turmoil that have spurred economicinstability and emigration to the West.

"Christianity is strong, we are strong, we are united and we havefaith," said homemaker Nadia Jahshin, a Greek Orthodox mother of two,who was present at the church on Thursday afternoon to celebrate theChristmas Eve liturgy of St. Vasilius together with the patriarchaldelegation.

"We look for the Star of the Nativity to light her light over all ofthe world. We hope that every year will be like the year 2000," saidJahshin.

Her husband Issam, meanwhile, was hoping the visits by the religiousand political leadership of eastern Europe, the Balkans and the formerSoviet Union would lead to more practical gains for the Christiantourist-based economy here by heralding the arrival of more tourists inthe millennial year.

"I hope that there will be more business, more tourists, peace inPalestine and peace with Israel, Syria and Lebanon," said Jahshin, amanager at a Jerusalem hotel maintained by the YMCA.

The religious leaders gathered here were also looking to thetheological significance of the Christmas gathering. They described itas a prelude to a formal "Great Synod" conference among the EasternOrthodox churches of the sort that has not been held since the 8thcentury.