rice in bethlehem 224 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a devout Christian, visited Jesus' traditional birthplace Wednesday in a symbolic bid to urge Israel and the Palestinians to move quickly to resume formal peace negotiations.
Rice has been meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders this week as part of preparations for a US-hosted peace conference in November or December. On Tuesday, she won public support from Egypt for the gathering, and then headed to Israel and the West Bank for more talks Wednesday.
Her day began in biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank, with a tour of the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto.
"Being here at the birthplace of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience," she said. "It is also, I think, a personal reminder that the prince of peace is still with us."
She said the three monotheistic religions of the Holy Land, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, "have an opportunity to overcome differences, to put aside grievances, to make religion a power of healing and a power of reconciliation, rather than a power of divisions."
Rice has said her visit to Bethlehem is part of an attempt to assure ordinary people that the US is serious about helping them reach peace. After her tour of the church, she met with civil leaders and local security chiefs.
Palestinians hope Rice's visit to bring their daily difficulties of life under Israeli occupation into sharper focus.
Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, is lined on two sides by the separation barrier Israel has constructed. Town residents need difficult-to-obtain permits to cross through a wall terminal into Jerusalem, and long lines often form during rush hour.
Rice was able to see the wall and an IDF watchtower from the Bethlehem hotel where she met with the civic leaders.
"Many foreign diplomats came here supporting Israel, and they changed after they saw the Palestinians suffering from the occupation," said Salah Taameri, the Palestinian governor of the Bethlehem district. "Rice is human, and I think the wall will have an influence on her heart and mind."
Later Wednesday, Rice was to hold talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
On Tuesday, Rice met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo.
Aboul Gheit said the meeting "gives us a lot of trust and confidence" about American intentions for the conference, though he cautioned that preparations to hammer out the agenda could take more time.