Bearing gold-clad Bibles, candles, and goblets of powdery incense, dozens of Orthodox patriarchs and bishops launched Christmas Eve celebrations at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity on January 6. The event marked an unprecedented display of unity among some of the world's oldest church bodies.

The Orthodox Christmas services, the first major religious festivities in the Holy Land during the new year, drew nearly a dozen political leaders from eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union, including former Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

Two key leaders—the patriarch of Alexandria (Egypt) and the patriarch of Antioch, who presides over the Syrian Orthodox Church from Damascus—did not attend because of political tensions.

Egypt is at odds with Israel over claims to Jerusalem's Old City spiritual sites, although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty more than 15 years ago. Syria, meanwhile, is only now embarking on peace negotiations with the Jewish state.

Millennial Celebration

Thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims thronged the city's newly renovated Nativity Square to greet the Orthodox leaders, including the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros I.

The celebrations coincided with the onset of Christmas Eve, which the Orthodox calendar places on January 6.

Mounted Palestinian 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 sixth century.

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 short ...

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