Braced for violence and swarming with soldiers and police, Jerusalem hosted a placid millennium celebration today as Christians, Muslims and Jews marked convergent holidays in a city holy to all three faiths.
It was a brilliant, cloudless winter day, warm enough to sunbathe shirtless, and perhaps that contributed to the atmosphere of calm. So, no doubt, did the Israeli security presence. Three thousand well-armed police and border guards--triple the usual number--patrolled the holy sites and tortuous alleys of the Old City and East Jerusalem, crowding rooftop vantage points, mingling with tourists and pilgrims and combing the crowds for potential threats.
Christian visitors poked around the traditional sites where Jesus died and was resurrected nearly 2,000 years ago. A few passed midnight on the Mount of Olives, where, according to scripture, Jesus ascended to heaven and will someday return.
"Most of all, I wanted to see in the new millennium right here," said Edgar Bundy, 84, a retired air force officer from Illinois who watched the sunset from a crest of the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. "I don't predict when He will return, but with the world in the mess it is now, I see no other solution."
Official events, in both Israeli and Palestinian territory, were few. In Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem, the program in downtown Manger Square included locally produced films and music and the release of 2,000 doves at the stroke of midnight.
The Christian presence here was largely tourist, and diminished by pre-millennium warnings of terrorism. Jerusalem hotel managers said they have been hit by a wave of cancellations in recent weeks; at the glitzy new Hilton here, barely half the rooms are occupied.
So for most of the day, the turn of the millennium celebration, regarded by many here as a mainly Christian event, was drowned out by the celebrations of the city's other two major faiths.
At midday some 400,000 Muslims packed the plaza of al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City, Islam's third-holiest shrine, for the final Friday of the prayer and fasting month of Ramadan. Shortly before sundown, devout Jews gathered to pray at the Western Wall--the 2,000-year-old retaining wall of what was once the Second Temple--to mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath.
The three faiths mingled here, as they have for centuries with less than happy results, yet today there was remarkably little friction.
At the Church of Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, traditional site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial, many or most of the visitors were Muslims. Carrying the prayer mats they had used to worship at al-Aqsa, many took advantage of a rare opportunity to come into Jerusalem from the West Bank without security checks to play tourist and wander around the church.
"I feel comfortable here," said Ali Besha, 50, a Jordanian hotel manager who was visiting the church for the first time. "This is a special day, and there is no reason all people cannot get along."
The authorities monitored events from a special millennium situation room. By late in the day just a handful of minor incidents had been reported--a woman crushed in a crowd and hospitalized, a handful of pickpocketings, some computer glitches.
Many Israeli Jews, particularly in Jerusalem, cast a skeptical eye on the rest of the world's millennium glee. The secular calendar is widely observed here, but few lose sight of the sacred calendars that also measure their lives. In the Hebrew calendar, some noted, Saturday is an ordinary day in the year 5760, not the dawn of a new millennium.
In this city, far more so than in Tel Aviv, the Sabbath is taken seriously. Most restaurants and cafes were closed tonight, and religious authorities prohibited hotels from throwing noisy millennial parties.
One of the only organized events for Christian tourists, a performance of Handel's "Messiah" at the city convention center, was canceled for lack of funds. A dance party at the city's main soccer stadium was also scrapped, for security reasons.
"Anyone who wants to dance with a large show should wait until Saturday night," the Religious Council of Jerusalem said in a statement.
The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, lit a torch in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his Fatah movement, the dominant component of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrote essays in several newspapers urging his countrymen to steel themselves for peace in 2000.
"Our march toward peace is at its most critical point," he wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "Are we to march with determination and courage, despite the heavy price, to seize this moment in order to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, to put an end to the tears and to achieve security, stability and calm on all our borders--or are we to back off? What I offer is not an easy choice but it is a correct one--for peace and its price."
On a lighter note, an Israeli astrologer, Pnina Katz, offered a rosy prognosis for 2000. There would be a breakthrough to peace with Syria in March, she said, an economic upturn in June and a triumph for the government against the internal opposition in the fall. For January and February, Katz predicted rain.
Special correspondents Mike O'Connor and Eetta Prince-Gibson contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat lights a flame in the Gaza Strip to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his Fatah movement.
CAPTION: Nuns hold candles during a prayer vigil outside the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem with the double arch of the Old City's Golden Gate in the background.