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

The Orthodox Christmas celebrations, the first major religious festivities in the Holy Land during the millennial year, also drew nearly a dozen political leaders from eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union, including former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who arrived on Wednesday.

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

"In the year 2000 of Christianity, I find myself in the Holy Land for the first time," said the former Russian president exuberantly, just after receiving the honor of the "Knights of the Holy Sepulcher" in a ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday morning hosted by Greek Patriarch Diodoros I.

Nonetheless, Yeltsin didn't hesitate to air his opinion on political matters either, declaring Russia would continue its military offensive against rebels in Chechnya and also support Palestinians in their quest for statehood.

"In a month or two we will have crushed the terrorists. We are not leaving Chechnya, no," said Yeltsin, following the awards ceremony that also included the presidents of Belarus, Georgia, and the Ukraine, as well as leaders from the Balkan states of Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

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

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

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

An honor guard of Greek Orthodox priests, clad in orange brocade cloaks and carrying an enormous gold-bound Bible, led the delegation into the church's main entrance, a tiny 4-foot-high passageway. The door, dating back to the medieval period, was built to prevent Mameluke Muslim 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 long processions of priests encircled the church repeatedly swinging bell-decked goblets of powdery incense intended to "uplift" the spirits of believers.

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

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

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

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

Her husband Issam, meanwhile, was hoping the visits by the religious and political leadership of eastern Europe, the Balkans and the former Soviet Union would lead to more practical gains for the Christian tourist-based economy here by heralding the arrival of more tourists in the millennial year.

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

The religious leaders gathered here were also looking to the theological significance of the Christmas gathering. They described it as a prelude to a formal "Great Synod" conference among the Eastern Orthodox churches of the sort that has not been held since the 8th century.

A series of meetings between the pan-Orthodox leadership over the past two days have laid the groundwork for such an event, said Archbishop Szymon of Poland, who presides over the church in the Lodz region.

"This is a preparation for a pan-Orthodox council to talk about different religious points," he said. "Separation is not good. The church should become one, unified. But in what time that will happen, we shall have to see."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Orthodoxy, has been a strong supporter of unification moves.

But some Orthodox figures fear such a reorganization might encroach on the traditional autonomy of the 15 churches of the Orthodox organized largely around national identities.

In addition, the 15 patriarchs and archbishops who lead the various Orthodox church denominations are eager to preserve the equality they all enjoy in the religious world where Bartholomew is regarded as a "first among equals" rather than as a papal figure with absolute doctrinal authority.

"One of the big differences in the Eastern churches is that they don't accept the primacy of a pope as in the Roman Catholic world," said Bishop Jann, a religious leader of the younger generation of the Orthodox Church in Albania. "Still we face problems in terms of how to organize ourselves today."

The problems include greater demands for autonomy from congregations in ethnic locales ranging from Estonia to Arab Palestine. A large section of Israel's 100,000 Arab Orthodox population, in fact, is today revolting against the authority of the dominant Greek church here.

On Wednesday several hundred Palestinians gathered in Jerusalem outside of the patriarchs' meeting to protest the local Orthodox church's alleged misuse of monies from the rental of vast church properties as well as its neglect of local Arab community needs.

Conversely, Orthodox leaders today must grapple with congregations of adherents who have been radically shuffled and displaced by the mass population movements of the last century.

No longer are Greek, Russian, and Balkan denominations of believers neatly organized according to ethnic affiliation in the old strongholds of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and eastern Europe. Instead, they have become increasingly mixed and dispersed throughout Western Europe and the Americas.

"There is a new Orthodox diaspora emerging," said Jann. "And we have to come to grips with that."

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