Pope John Paul II and other Christian leaders have declared 2000 a Jubilee Year.
Twenty centuries have passed since the birth of Christ, and churches have identified this year as a time of reflection and spiritual renewal.
Millions watched live on Christmas Eve as the pope opened a previously sealed door, designated the jubilee door, at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The open door is a reminder of God's mercy and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal.
Other believers observed similar rituals. St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church decorated an entrance to its sanctuary with red and white carnations. Parishioners placed roses and more carnations around the door throughout the Christmas holiday weekend, said the Rev. James Costigan, pastor. "It was a collage of color," he said.
The jubilee focus is drawn from the Biblical ideal, in Leviticus 25, of having regular sabbatical years when land lies fallow, captives are freed, debts are forgiven and worship is renewed.
The Catholic church has observed periodic jubilee years for 700 years.
Jews observed sabbatical years but lost count of jubilee years -- if they were ever practiced, said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Adas Yeshurun synagogue.
The Catholic church is not the only group with a millennium program of spiritual stock-taking. The idea inspired several Christian organizations to urge forgiveness of Third-World debts in keeping with the jubilee spirit.
The U.S. Congress accepted changes in International Monetary Fund and World Bank procedures in dealing with loans this year. It also set aside $110 million to reduce the indebtedness of foreign nations.
Visiting holy sites on pilgrimage is part of the jubilee tradition.
Tourist agencies geared up for record numbers of pilgrims this year -- and the pope will be among them. The Vatican is finalizing plans for his March trip to the Holy Land, where Israel projects a 50-percent increase in visitors.
Sacred sites have received face lifts, but not without struggle.
The Palestinian Authority spent $160 million on Bethlehem 2000 with support from the World Bank, the European Union and the United States.
Though it chafed under Jewish control, the authority worked "day and night" for two years to accomplish the makeover, said Tayeb Abdel Rahim, authority president and Yasser Arafat's top aide.
Renovations included laying the first sewer and electric lines in some parts of the Old City. Most of the work was completed in time for Mr. Arafat to switch on the lights of a gigantic Christmas tree in Manger Square to open the project.
In Jerusalem, the government has said a new door must be installed in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to make the 900-year-old structure safe for the expected throng of pilgrims.Isreal has had a difficult time encouragingtourism while maintaining security.
Fearing problems with apocalyptic believers, it deported small numbers of end-timer Christians during the year.
Knight Ridder reports were used in this article.
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