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World: Two Years To Go, Countries Rush To Mark the Millennium

London, 30 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- With just two years to go before the Millennium, countries around the world are planning an ambitious range of events to mark the start of the new century.

London is building a $1.2 billion exhibition center large enough to house 3,300 double-decker buses; Paris hopes to cast the world's largest bell; and the Pope plans a huge gathering of church leaders to mark the beginning of the third Christian Millennium.

One thing can be assured: much of the world will stage a party-to-end-parties when the chimes of midnight December 31, 1999, give way to January 1, 2000 -- just 24 months from now.

To be strictly accurate, the new Millennium actually starts January 1, 2001. This is because the first year of the Millennium was One A.D. But, British writer Ronald Thomson says governments as well as public opinion accept that it's natural that a year with such a round number as 2000 should be celebrated in style.

Thomson recently carried out a survey of Millennium events to be held worldwide. The survey is published this month by the Reuter Foundation, a journalism-training trust established by the world news organization.

This is what he discovered:

Tourists are already booking trips to South Pacific islands, close to the international date line, hoping to be among the first in the world to see the first sunrise of the new century. In a bid to cash in on this lucrative trade, the South Pacific republic of Kiribati has changed its name to the Millennium Islands.

But critics claim that Kiribati has, in effect, bent the international dateline to lure the Millennium tourists. Tonga and other island groups say they are a better-located destination. Britain's Royal Observatory says if people really want to see the first sunrise, they should head for the Balleny Islands in Antarctica.

Britain might be going further than any other nation to mark the Millennium. Work is already under way on a massive exhibition center at Greenwich on the River Thames, home of the former Royal Observatory, which gave the world Greenwich Mean Time.

The Greenwich Dome, the largest such structure in the world, will be 320 meters in diameter and 50 meters high at its center -- the same height as Nelson's Column. The steel dome, on top of 12 vast welded steel masts, could house 3,300 London double-decker buses.

The government says the "Millennium Experience" dome, housing exhibitions focusing on the future will provide "the most thought-provoking experience on the planet in the year 2000." Critics say the cost is a waste of public money, that would be better spent on London's crumbling public-transport system.

The French have installed a huge electronic meter on the Eiffel Tower to mark the count-down to the Millennium. A symbolic route has been traced throughout the country to the Paris meridian, along which people are encouraged to plant trees. A continuous walkway is to be created on the banks of the River Seine. The French also have plans to cast the world's largest bell, weighing 30 ton, whose peal will be heard over 30 kilometers away.

Pope John Paul has proclaimed the start of the third Christian Millennium as a jubilee year focused on special religious celebrations. About 20-million tourists are expected in Rome, three times as many as in a normal year. St. Peter's Basilica is having a structural facelift. An "unofficial" Olympics is planned under Church auspices, to be called the "Holy Games of the Holy Year."

The Pope is reportedly planning a big gathering of Christian leaders to mark the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are said to be at the center of the event. The emphasis in Germany is on political and economic prospects for the century ahead. One symbolic political event will occur December 31, 1999, when the Chancellor takes over a new residence on the old Cold War divide between West and East Berlin.

In the United States, there is no central focus for celebrations. Still, First Lady Hillary Clinton has been appointed by the President to lead a national campaign to plan a once-in-a-lifetime celebration designed, as he put it, to "honor the past and to imagine the future."

But, not everything is going smoothly. That's certainly the case in Ireland. One of the first casualties of "Millennimania" was a giant electronic underwater clock in Dublin's River Liffey, which was supposed to count down the seconds to the great day.

Unfortunately, the river is so murky that no-one could read the timepiece. Now the $425,000 clock is to be broken up.