WITH THE ARRIVAL of the second millennium, the little town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David and Jesus Christ, is about to experience what is likely to be the biggest international date in its history. Bethlehem's Palestinian population is hoping that the town, perched on a hill in Biblical Judaea, will take centre stage with the help of the Bethlehem 2000 project.
Bethlehem, whose name means House of Bread, is first mentioned in Genesis as the place where Jacob's wife Rachel died after she gave birth to her youngest son Benjamin. Ruth the Moabite chose to stay with her mother-in-law to glean ears of corn in the fields around Bethlehem rather than return to her home in the mountains east of the Jordan River. Ruth married Boaz and their great grandson was David, the young shepherd destined to be King of Israel.
But Bethlehem's big moment was yet to come as foretold by the prophet Micah: `But thou, Bethlehem, Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel.'
Tradition has it that Jesus was born in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem because there was no room at the inn. The splendid Church of the Nativity built over the sacred spot is one of the oldest in the world. The site of the manger is mentioned as early as the second century. The Emperor Constantine had a basilica erected there in AD 330. Despite repeated occupation by foreign armies and long periods of neglect and ruin, Bethlehem has managed to hold on to its place as one of the most celebrated religious sites in the world.
As with most of the sites in the `Holy Land', however, controversy, claim and counter claim have never been far away. The Church of the Nativity is jointly owned by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches. Fifteen silver lamps hang over the spot where Jesus was traditionally born -- six belong to the Greek Orthodox, five to the Armenians and four to the Catholics.
There are at least two Shepherds' Fields, one site belonging to the Greek Orthodox, the other to the Roman Catholics. Over the centuries, the sects have worked out a modus vivendi. The present-day controversy stems from the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
After being occupied by Israel in 1967, Bethlehem became an autonomous Palestinian town in 1994. But Rachel's Tomb on the edge of the town remains in the hands of the Israelis, who have encased the building concrete fortifications and only allow in Jewish and Christian visitors. Tourists tend to be bussed in from Jerusalem by Israeli tour groups through the Israeli checkpoints set up outside Bethlehem and taken straight to Manger Square for a quick visit. The situation has hit tourism and the traditional Palestinian olive wood and mother-of-pearl souvenir shops throughout the little town have been finding times hard. Meanwhile the Palestinians have been keeping an anxious eye on the proposed new Jewish settlement on the hill of Har Homa opposite Bethlehem, fearing it was to be turned into an Israeli `Bethlehem experience'. For months, Israel has been advertising itself as the place where the Millennium began.
The unstable situation has lent an edge to the multi-million pound Bethlehem 2000 project. …