Planning Britain's Party Of Century Is No Picnic

Is shindig for year 2000 a Christian celebration? Is it too costly? And will it beat Paris?

Peter Mandelson, the government minister in charge of London's millennium celebrations, is beginning to wish he could stop the clock.

He is running short of inspiration on what to put inside the giant plastic tent, universally known as "the Dome," now being erected at a cost of 750 million ($1.2 billion) on a site beside the river Thames.

Mr. Mandelson has to come up with themes to occupy 11 huge stages and a central area that will be spectacular enough, he hopes, to attract 20 million visitors in the year 2000.

But as soon as Mandelson returned from a quick fact-finding trip to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., he came under criticism from Christian clergymen for allegedly wanting to turn the millennium into a secular event.

Richard Harries, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, who had watched Mandelson on television step gray-faced from Disney's Tower of Terror, thundered, "The millennium must be a Christian celebration."

In reply, Mandelson announced, "The impact of Christian civilization on Western civilization will be central to the project."

But that triggered bitter comments from Muslims, Hindus, and members of other religions, who regard themselves as members of a multicultural, multifaith British society.

Bashir Abrahim-Khan, spokesman for the giant golden mosque in London's Regent's Park, says, "The government must decide what this celebration is about.

"If it is only about the birth of Christ, fair enough - we wish our Christian brothers well. But if it is about Britain in the year 2000, Islam should have a place in the Dome."

The Lambeth Group, an umbrella body with representatives of different religions that is advising the government, has called for a Christian chapel to be part of the Dome site and for another "appropriate space" for members of other religions who wish to pray.

So far Jennie Page, chief executive of the company organizing "The Millennium Experience" has refused to say whether Christianity will be given more prominence than other religions.

Mandelson, who last year was accused by an opposition Conservative Party spokesman of planning "an empty monument to the egos of New Labour [Party] politicians," says he was impressed by Disney's Walk Around the World in Epcot Center.

Otherwise he remains tight-lipped, except to suggest that the central area of the Dome could be turned into a "town square, rather like Main Street USA" at Disney World's Magic Kingdom park.

ART of his problem is the scale of the Dome project.

The high cost has to be justified at a time when Prime Minister Tony Blair is planning to slash state benefits for the poor and needy. Supporters of improved education have complained that a hundred new schools could be built with the funds allocated to the Dome.

Mandelson has answered such criticisms by saying the Dome will be funded mainly from proceeds from Britain's national lottery.

Other critics point out that Paris will celebrate the millennium with more imaginative, but much cheaper, events.

At the stroke of midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, perfume will be poured into the waters of the River Seine, and the Eiffel Tower will "lay" a giant egg. The shell will then open out to reveal hundreds of TV screens tuned to celebrations around the world.

Mandelson, by contrast, with just over 700 days to go, is leaving the impression that he is still picking up ideas from the backs of envelopes, while caught in the crossfire of different religious faiths.

In a scathing editorial yesterday, London's Daily Telegraph commented: "It will be an extraordinary, absurd, almost blasphemous thing if Britain chooses to commemorate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus Christ with a nationalized version of Mickey Mouse, paid for from the profits of gambling."

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