U.N. Palestine Committee Organizes Bethlehem 2000

International Conference in Rome

President Arafat and Foreign Minister Dini Participate in Conference Opening

Committee’s delegation is given an audience with Pope John Paul II and is received by the President of the Italian Republic¬†

The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP) organized a highly successful Bethlehem 2000 International Conference, which convened from 18 to 19 February 1999 at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) headquarters in Rome. The Conference had the full support of Palestine, Italy, the Vatican, church authorities, the European Commission, the United Nations system and various other international organizations and institutions, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The organization of the Conference by the CEIRPP represents a continuation of the Committee’s efforts with regard to Bethlehem 2000, which began with agenda item 157, Bethlehem 2000, of the 53rd session of the U.N. General Assembly, and the adoption of resolution 53/27 (18 November 1998). The unanimous adoption of that resolution was hailed by the Conference as "a clear reflection of the world community’s strong desire to bring the era of dialogue, tolerance and reconciliation to the people of Bethlehem and the entire Middle East."

The convergence at the Conference of so many different important individuals and institutions from the governmental, religious, intergovernmental, academic, cultural, private and non-profit sectors of society was a testament to the importance attached to the forthcoming Bethlehem 2000 commemorations. The events planned for this occasion are scheduled to begin Christmas 1999 and to continue until Easter 2001, in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago in Bethlehem and to mark the onset of the third millennium.

With Bethlehem at the center of millennial celebrations, the Palestinian people are proud and honored to be hosting such a historic occasion that, it is hoped, will reflect and promote a vision of peace, reconciliation and goodwill for all humankind. However, following the long years of occupation and extensive damage to the economic and social infrastructure of Palestinian towns and cities, including Bethlehem, the Palestinian people are unable to meet the demands necessitated by such an enormous undertaking alone. The Bethlehem 2000 Project, inaugurated by the Palestinian Authority in March 1997, serves as the main vehicle for pursuing the rehabilitation and development of the city of Bethlehem in anticipation of the 2 million pilgrims and tourists expected to visit the city throughout the commemorations.

The opening session of the Conference was addressed by H.E. President Yasser Arafat and H.E. Mr. Lamberto Dini, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Italian Republic. Statements at the opening session were also made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Senegal, H.E. Mr. Jacques Baudin; H.E. Dr. Azeddine Laraki, Secretary-General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC); Mr. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO; His Eminence Roger Cardinal Etchegaray, Head of the Holy See delegation and President of the Committee for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000; the Mayor of Rome, Honorable Francesco Rutelli; and Sir Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Representative of the Secretary-General of the U.N. The Conference was chaired by H.E. Ambassador Ibra Deguene Ka of Senegal, Chairman of the CEIRPP.

Along with the scheduled Conference sessions, the convening of the Conference in Rome also allowed for important meetings with others. The Committee’s delegation was given an audience with His Holiness Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on 19 February, and was also received by Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro at the Quirinale Palace on 17 February. Both gatherings entailed valuable discussions on important issues regarding various aspects of the Bethlehem 2000 commemorations. The delegation was honored to receive the Pope’s encouragement and blessings for the Bethlehem 2000 Project and the work of the Committee in this regard. In his address, the Pope stated, inter alia, "The promise of peace made at Bethlehem will become a reality when the dignity and the rights of human beings made in the image of God are acknowledged and respected. May the work of your Committee help to ensure that the birthplace of the One "who shepherds God’s people" will remind people everywhere that peace is God’s gift from above."

Upon its conclusion, the Conference adopted the "Rome Declaration on Bethlehem 2000". It reaffirmed the international community’s support for the Bethlehem 2000 Project and their determination for the success of occasion and expressed appreciation for the funding and assistance being provided by the international donor community, particularly donor countries, agencies and the private sector. As noted in the Declaration, one of the main goals of the Conference aimed at "supporting and promoting the Bethlehem 2000 Project launched by the Palestinian Authority and at ensuring the greatest possible international participation in its realization."

The following is a listing of the sessions of the Conference, in the order in which they were convened after the opening session, as well as a list of the participants who delivered statements during the meetings:

Celebrating the New Millennium in a Global Vision of Peace and Reconciliation: Mr. Said Kamal - Assistant Secretary-General of the League of Arab States; His Beatitude Msgr. Michel Sabbah - Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem; Reverend Dr. Joan Brown Campbell - General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA; Reverend Father Archpriest Victor Petlyuchenko - Deputy Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations, Moscow Patriarchate; His Eminence Cardinal Anba Moussa - General Archpriest and Representative of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III; His Eminence The Metropolitan of Switzerland, Damakinos Papandreou; Ambassador Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud - President of the Islamic Cultural Centre in Rome; Mr. Dwain C. Epps – Director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the World Council of Churches; and Reverend Dr. Naim Ateek - Director of Sabeel, Jerusalem.

Preparing for the Millennium Celebrations: a) Status of the Bethlehem 2000 Project, b) Meeting needs, facing obstacles, looking to the future: Dr. Nabeel Kassis – Minister, Coordinator-General of the Bethlehem 2000 Project Authority; Mr. Hanna Nasser – Mayor of Bethlehem; Mr. Nabil Sarraf – Vice-President of Palestine Development and Investment Company; and Mr. Valdo Spini - President of the Parliamentary Association Italy/Israel.

Voice and Responsibilities of Parliaments: Initiatives in Connection with Bethlehem 2000: Honorable Nicola Mancino - President of the Italian Senate; Mr. Miguel Angel Martinez - President of the Inter-Parliamentary Council; Honorable Luciano Violante – President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies; Mr. Humayun Rasheed Choudhury – Speaker of the Bangladeshi Parliament; and H.E. Mr. Nehad Ibrahim Abdel Latif – Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to Italy.

Closing Session: H.E. Mr. Rino Serri – Senator, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Representative of Host Government; Representative of Palestine – Minister Kassis; H.E. Ambassador Ka - Chairman of the CEIRPP.