In Jerusalem, crowds ring in year peacefully

Despite dire predictions and mix of worshipers, few incidents reported

January 01, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Defying all sorts of doomsday scenarios, this "City of Peace" lived up to its name yesterday.

There were no reports of mass suicides by religious cultists, terrorism or rock-throwing mobs, and there were only a few altercations between believers of varied faiths. Instead, the ancient walled town became, for a day, a quiet crossroad of religions and civilizations.

The weeks leading up to the year 2000 were filled with official preparations for the direst contingencies.

Besides worrying about possible spectacular acts of violence, authorities also were concerned about the mix of crowds of Christians marking the beginning of the third millennium since Jesus' birth, Jews worshiping at the start of the Sabbath and up to half a million Muslims praying at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques on the final Friday of the holy month of Ramadan.

Their fears were underscored Thursday when a male tourist tried to commit suicide by jumping from a church, according to Israel television. Recently, police rounded up and held what acting Jerusalem Chief Mickey Levy said were "a few tens" of people to prevent "surprises."

Last night, police reported detaining an American who was shouting that he had been sent by God atop the Mount of Olives, the site where some believe the Second Coming of Christ will occur. Another man was taken for psychiatric evaluation after bellowing that the end of the world was at hand.

Israelis, whose favored expressions include "God forbid," had spent Thursday lining up to empty ATM machines and stocking up on food and liquor to guard against year 2000 breakdowns.

Security was heavy throughout the Old City, which contains Judaism's Western Wall, Christianity's Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Islam's Al-Aqsa mosque. Volunteers supplemented the ranks of about 3,000 police officers.

As thousands of Palestinian men streamed through the narrow, canopied market alleys after Friday prayers, police blocked entrances to routes leading to the Western Wall and Jewish residential streets.

"They're discouraged" from entering Jewish areas, said volunteer Mark Van Gelderen, "just so there are no altercations between different groups. We're keeping people separate. Therefore, there is less chance of people getting into fights."

But in the open square near Jaffa Gate, a western entrance to the walled city, Palestinians brushed easily past Orthodox Jews, Christian pilgrims and tourists.

For months, attention has been riveted on millennial fundamentalist Christians hoping to witness the Second Coming of Christ. But many Christians contradicted the stereotype yesterday.

New arrival Matthew R. Brozovic, 69, a Franciscan from Pittsburgh, ambled down cobbled St. Francis Road in sandals, puffing an unfiltered cigarette and reveling in the chance to work in the Holy Land.

When his plane swung over Jerusalem en route to Tel Aviv's airport, he said, "I felt the Latin phrase, `Domine non sum dignus' -- Lord, I am not worthy."

`A lot of spirituality'

Resting on a step outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Maya Sanbar, 28, a Beirut-raised daughter of Palestinians who left Haifa before the 1948 war, said she was exploring her homeland for the first time.

"I've just been feeling a lot of spirituality around me everywhere in Jerusalem. It's so holy and powerful. It's a place where God speaks to everyone," she said in a clipped British accent.

Inside the church, a crowd of visitors stood at the stone where Jesus' body was believed to have been been lain for washing after the crucifixion, waiting for Romanian Orthodox priests to complete a vespers service of chants and scriptural passages of Christ's last day.

Then, as a chorus of "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" drifted in the church, Carlo Yanudoro, 25, of Romania joined worshipers who knelt and kissed the stone to be cleansed of errors.

"God takes away your mistakes and shows you another way," the young man said as he left.

Across the Old City, Erica Mangs, one of thousands of American Jewish college students brought here by Birthright Israel, waited in line to approach the Western Wall, remarking that the change to the year 2000 had yet to sink in: "It doesn't seem real."

As darkness fell on the Mount of Olives, an Israeli couple huddled together overlooking a gracefully lighted Dome of the Rock mosque. Below them, Ursula Dossier, a lone women from Corpus Christi, Texas, stood in the cemetery to honor her Jewish grandmother.

Close to midnight, hundreds of tourists and local Arabs gathered on the mount in an atmosphere of revelry with occasional pilgrims holding forth about their beliefs before reporters and television cameras.

Fireworks and doves

For many, the atmosphere was too peaceful. Hoteliers in Jewish West Jerusalem chafed at a refusal by Israel's rabbinate to allow New Year's Eve parties because it was Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath. Rabbis said the plans for pop bands and dancing would desecrate the Sabbath.

Instead, fun-lovers drove nine kilometers to Palestinian-administered Bethlehem, where a festive atmosphere prevailed with fireworks and the release of 2,000 doves at midnight.

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