In an historic display of unity, the heads of the 13 traditional churches of Jerusalem gathered together in Bethlehem's Manger Square over the weekend to pray for a joyful Christmas and to launch the millennium celebrations for Christianity's 2000th anniversary.

At the official launch patriarchs, archbishops and other church heads and officials from the Holy Land were joined by church representatives?Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox?from around the world and by thousands of pilgrims.

Palestinians, some of them dressed in biblical costumes, danced behind marching bands in the shadow of the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born.

But the celebrations could not conceal the fact that most of Bethlehem's residents are Muslims. Christians are a shrinking minority here. A reminder of the changing demography of this sacred town was the fact that a church choir had to wait until a Muslim service ended at a mosque across Manger Square before singing Christmas carols.

But one of the principal participants, Pope John Paul II's envoy to the Holy Land, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, told Ecumenical News International (ENI) the start of the new millennium was an appropriate moment for Christianity and Islam to show greater respect for one another.

"Bethlehem has been totally renovated for the year 2000 and the work has been done by Muslims and Christians together," he said. "The message at the beginning of the new millennium is that we have to recover this capacity?the Muslims to rejoice with the Christians when the Christians rejoice, and the Christians to be capable of rejoicing with the Muslims when the Muslims rejoice."

Bethlehem, a Palestinian-controlled area in the West Bank about ten minutes' ...

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