IN TWO years the lights in the Millennium Dome will go up on greasepainted faces and bright costumes as schoolchildren bring the teachings of Jesus to life in a four-day festival.
Every schoolchild in Britain is to have the chance to perform on stage in the Dome in a project reflecting the Christian significance of the start of the 21st century.
"This is not worship, it is education. We have been careful not to approach these issues of faith from a religious or evangelical context. This is for children of all faiths and none to explore what Jesus really means in the world today," said David Senior, director of the charity JC2000, which is organising the project.
Today each of Britain's 33,000 schools is due to receive an invitation to enter a millennium production into a national competition to use drama, dance, music, art or writing to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ to today's issues. The winners will perform during Pentecost weekend in June 2000 as part of the first explicitly Christian project associated with the Millennium Dome.
"It could be a fully fledged musical or a simple sequence of songs or readings. We hope it will reflect the full cultural diversity of Britain today," said Mr Senior. "Pupils should think about what Jesus would be saying if he lived in their town today."
Karen Underwood, JC2000's arts consultant, said: "It is about teaching religious education using the arts and learning to develop those arts. Not every one will want to enter a production but that doesn't mean they can't benefit from our teaching resources and workshops. Teachers can have a pack of lesson plans which fit straight into the national curriculum and disregard what they don't want to use."
The project has the support of leading figures from the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths and JC2000 hopes to receive entries from their communities.
Mrs Underwood said: "Jesus was an important historical figure and children of all religions can interpret what he means to them, Muslims see him as an important prophet for example. We want the project to be as wide and exciting as possible and entries from other religions would be very interesting."
The team of artists and educators working on the teaching packs will also run workshops in January to show teachers how to turn a gospel theme into a full-scale production.
Around 200 local and regional festivals are planned, culminating in a spectacular "final" at the Dome.
Mr Senior said: "We hope every school will enter. We are not looking for medieval mystery plays and nativity plays. We want some pretty revolutionary stuff not backward-looking historical pieces.
"I hope they will tackle issues like what it means to turn the other cheek if you live in a rough inner-city area and how do our obligations to our neighbours square with the problem of homelessness and damage to the environment."
School standards minister Stephen Byers said: "I welcome the opportunity JC2000 offers young people throughout the UK to explore social issues relevant to their lives in creative and imaginative ways."
Mr Senior has already raised pound;250,000 towards the pound;1 million needed. Schools will have to pay a registration fee to join the project and to send teachers to workshops. More details are available on the charity's information line on 0990 334023.