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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Holy Land Honors Private Citizen Yeltsin

JERUSALEM -- Making his first trip abroad since his abrupt resignation Dec. 31, former President Boris Yeltsin visited Israel and the Palestinian territories for Orthodox Christmas, telling reporters he was settling in "gradually" to his new life as a private citizen.

But little adjustment seemed necessary: Yeltsin, who traveled with an entourage that included top officials, scores of journalists, his family, his doctor and his cook, was accorded all the pomp, honor and aggressive security appropriate to a visiting head of state.

And a spokesman explained to reporters that Yeltsin should not be referred to as a former president but as Russia's first president. "He's the president and will always be," Dmitry Yakushkin said. "It's a sign of honor for him."

Appearing pale but relaxed and cheerful, Yeltsin, 68, was greeted with honor guards, trumpets and toasts at a lunch in Jerusalem with Israeli President Ezer Weizman and at a dinner given by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

During a ceremony Thursday, Yeltsin and the presidents of Greece, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova - who all came to Jerusalem for Friday's celebration of Orthodox Christmas - were awarded the Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher, the highest honor given by the Greek Orthodox patriarchate for service to the faith.

It was acknowledged by the patriarchate that not all of the honorees, some of them former Communist Party potentates, had always made life easy for Christians in their regions, with one of the bishops saying the award had a "teaching" purpose.

Throughout the day Thursday, Yeltsin spoke out on issues ranging from Palestinian statehood to the controversial war Russia is fighting in Chechnya. He also referred, briefly, to his decision to step down Dec. 31, saying his soul had been "in pain for the simple people of Russia."

He didn't elaborate.

Regarding Chechnya, Yeltsin predicted the war, which began in early October, would last at most "two more months."

"Then, we will plant our Russian flag in Chechnya," Yeltsin said.

Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, a guest at Weizman's luncheon, said Israel and Russia share a threat from Islamic fundamentalists, but he echoed the concern, widespread among Western governments, that the Russian campaign in Chechnya is brutal, inflicting unacceptable casualties and suffering on the republic's civilian population.

"It is very dangerous to turn the struggle against terrorism into a struggle against a whole people," he said.

In the West Bank, Yeltsin and Arafat, who have met many times before, greeted each other with hugs and then clasped hands as they inspected a Palestinian honor guard.

Arafat received assurances from Yeltsin that Russia, under acting President Vladimir Putin, will continue its strong support for Palestinian statehood. "I want to tell my friend that he should believe in Russia and trust Russia," Yeltsin said.

Back in Moscow, Putin and other top officials attended Christmas Day services that began Friday and lasted until early Saturday in the newly restored Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Patriarch Alexy II conducted the service in the cathedral. Putin, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky were among those at the services.

The Christ the Savior Cathedral has become a symbol of the Orthodox Church's revival and its close relationship with the state. The church was built by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate victory over Napoleon in 1812.

Josef Stalin ordered the destruction of the cathedral, and the giant edifice was blown up Sept. 5, 1931 and replaced by a municipal swimming pool. Reconstruction began in the mid-1990s.