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Blessitt is he who bears his cross round the world

MAN HAD just set foot on the moon when Arthur Blessitt received his calling from on high to carry a 12-foot cross around every nation in the world.

More than 29 years and 32,000 miles later, the Christian has finally completed his mission from God and earned himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records with "the world's longest walk".

Instead of a compass, the pilgrim has relied on divine guidance on his journey which started in Hollywood, California, and ended with a celebratory stroll from Westminster Abbey to Canterbury this week.

The Californian will discover that one or two dramatic changes have taken place since he set out on the road to enlightenment.

For example, the Berlin Wall is now a pile of rubble after the Cold War thawed, Britain has had its first woman prime minister and five US presidents have passed through the White House.

However, Mr Blessitt has had his own troubles to deal with which would make a saint blanch. These included facing a firing squad, being arrested 24 times and travelling across 49 countries at war.

While the rest of the world has faced decimalisation and the Spice Girls, the religious zealot has been busy coping with an unfriendly green mamba snake in Ghana, a baboon attack in Kenya, an elephant chase in Tanzania and a crocodile attack in Zimbabwe.

For the past eight years, Mr Blessitt has enjoyed the comfort of a companion on his trip. His English wife Denise, who he found time to marry in 1990, has been at his side to help him with his mission.

Mr Blessitt's followers have been able to keep up with his progress in recent years by logging on to his website which is illustrated with pictures of his grinning face and wooden cross beside such landmarks as the Great Wall of China.

His regular bulletins tell how he had to forgo the easy gratification of fast food for the dubious pleasures of baked monkey leg in Africa and rat soup in Belize, and how his sleeping arrangements have varied from the luxury of a bed at the St James Club in London to the filth of a pig pen in Colombia.

However, Mr Blessitt's road to Calvary, funded by donations, has been eased slightly by modern technology. His collapsible cross, which weighs 40lb, comes with an inflatable tyre attached to its base for wheeling across rocky terrain.

Like its owner, the cross has had its share of mishaps. Mr Blessitt was parted from it for a month when it went missing in the care of Alitalia airlines. It was stolen at Assisi on Christmas Day 1979, then had to be pieced together after being broken in the United States.

Sinners have often shown a more saintly attitude to the cross than believers. Mr Blessitt reports that more than half the churches he has approached have refused to let him leave it in their safe care overnight. However, it has never been turned away from spending the night at a bar or in a nightclub.

Mr Blessitt may have been welcomed by world leaders and religious heads, including Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but the reaction to his mission has not always been favourable.

He once had to haul the cross 18,200 feet above sea level to the Bronzal Pass after he was denied a visa to enter Afghanistan.

He has also been confused with Jesus on a number of occasions.

"I was mistaken for him in a Liberian village in 1973," he said. "I explained, 'I'm not Jesus, I'm a sinner'. But they thought I was just being modest. The village chief got down on his knees."

Mr Blessitt, 57, has no plans to hang up his walking boots now that he has satisfied his religious wanderlust. Instead, he is already aiming to revisit several countries.

He also rejects claims that his mission is eccentric. "I don't see myself as a radical. I'm simply obeying the call of Jesus and witnessing to people along the way," he said. "I have picked my routes through a country by praying over a map and asking God what his route should be. My motivation has been because I love God and I try to keep it simple."