Bethlehem is to become the site of an unusual summit January 7, 2000, the Orthodox Church's Christmas day.

The heads of all the world's Eastern Orthodox churches and presidents of predominantly Orthodox countries are expected to convene for millennium celebrations at the invitation of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodorus of Jerusalem. However, there is already speculation as to whether the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, will be able to attend, given his frequent illnesses. His deputy chief of staff, Sergei Prikhodko, confirmed this month that President Yeltsin planned to be in Bethlehem January 6 and 7. The statement followed the Russian president's return from a week in hospital due to pneumonia.

Hieromonk Mark Golovkov, an official with the Moscow Patriarchate's representation in Jerusalem, told Ecumenical News International (ENI) in a telephone interview that as of this month, Presidents Costis Stephanopoulos of Greece, Glafcos Clerides of Cyprus, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Emil Constantinecu of Romania, Petru Lucinschi of Moldova and Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia were expected to attend the Orthodox Christmas celebration in Bethlehem.

Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has also been invited but it is thought that it will be unlikely that he will attend because he risks arrest as an indicted war criminal.

Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I, considered "the first among equals" of Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, will lead the service in Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity, built on the site where Mary is believed to have given birth to Jesus 2,000 years ago. More than a dozen patriarchs and metropolitans who lead the world's Eastern Orthodox Churches will also take part in the service.

Large groups of pilgrims and government officials are expected to attend and people outside will be able to follow the service on giant television screens erected outside the church in the recently renovated Manger Square. Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow, who leads the world's biggest Orthodox Church, is expected to arrive in the Holy Land with more than 1,000 Russian pilgrims.

Although some Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas December 25, others, including the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, follow the Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the Western, Gregorian calendar. Thus Christmas, which is usually referred to as the Nativity of Our Lord among the Orthodox, falls on January 7.

The giant celebration will be hosted by Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who on December 4 inaugurated the "Bethlehem 2000" festival, a rare ecumenical gathering of 13 Christian churches based in Jerusalem and Christians from around the world.

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During a visit to Moscow in late November, Arafat met Patriarch Alexei and had a 20-minute telephone conversation with President Yeltsin, who was in hospital. "The President confirmed that he would visit holy sites in Palestine as earlier planned," Arafat said at a press conference in Moscow.

Arafat's courting of the Christian churches has led to suggestions that he has been benefiting at the expense of Israel.

"The Palestinians are exploiting the Israeli failure artfully and snatching the Holy Land away from the Jews," Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli intellectual wrote this week in a leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. "If the Israelis flinch at the idea of the Christian attachment to the Holy Land, it will henceforth be identified with Palestine."

However, according to the program of Orthodox Christmas celebrations obtained by ENI from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the events, which begin in Jerusalem on January 4, will include a reception for the heads of churches and states by the Israeli president, Ezer Weizman, and the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert. Senior Israeli officials are also scheduled to attend a concert of Orthodox music in a Jerusalem theatre.

According to the program, there will also be Orthodox services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and processions both in Jerusalem's Old City and in Bethlehem.

The summit of the heads of Orthodox Churches is highly significant because it will be the first in many years. Patriarch Alexei stayed away from the last such gathering on the Island of Patmos in 1995 because of a jurisdictional dispute with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople over Orthodox churches in Estonia.

Although in full communion with each other, Orthodox churches are independent from each other. Their internal relations are often complicated, in part because of the sensitive relationship between the numerically small Patriarchate of Constantinople, in Istanbul, which holds traditional primacy, and the Russian Orthodox Church the world's biggest Orthodox Church. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the summit of the heads of predominantly Orthodox states that will take place in Bethlehem. This comes at a time when many people in traditionally Orthodox countries feel themselves threatened by Western domination in the post-Cold War world. This has led to suggestions that there is an "Orthodox civilization," different to both the Western European and Asian civilizations. Such suggestions, so far confined to the editorial pages of newspapers and to intellectual circles, have been generated by NATO's military action against traditionally Orthodox Yugoslavia. At the official government level, however, there has never been an acknowledgement of the existence of an international cultural unity among Orthodox nations transcending political blocs and alliances, apart from the European Inter-parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy a loose association of parliamentarians from traditionally Orthodox countries.

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Patriarch Alexei will leave the Holy Land immediately after the January 7 service in order to preside the following day at the first major service in the main nave of the giant Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in central Moscow, which was demolished by Stalin in 1931 and has been rebuilt over the past five years.

Related Elsewhere

See "Jerusalem's Church Leaders Usher in Millennium Celebrations | Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox heads pray in Manger Square," which ran last week on

Last Christmas,'s Russian culture area ran an article on Russian Orthodox Christmas.

The Orthodox Church in America site has a page about "Two Christmas Days."