Why did US President Joe Biden visit Bethlehem in Israel?

US President Joe Biden’s visit to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, took place in between his meetings with Abbas and MBS – with little fanfare.

 US President Joe Biden visits the Church of Nativity, in Bethlehem, in the West Bank July 15, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
US President Joe Biden visits the Church of Nativity, in Bethlehem, in the West Bank July 15, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)

While US President Joe Biden’s visit to East Jerusalem – part of his official visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia – was highlighted by his meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, the location chosen for the meeting – Bethlehem – carried significance for President Biden, a devout Catholic.

“President Biden, we welcome you as a dear guest of Palestine, in the city of Bethlehem, the cradle of our Lord Jesus Christ, on your official visit,” Abbas said during his introductory remarks to Biden at the PA’s Muqata’a Presidential Compound in Bethlehem.

After his meeting with Abbas, Biden boarded his flight to the Saudi city of Jeddah for his highly-publicized meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Less publicized, however, was Biden’s detour in between the meetings with the respective leaders – his personal pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Biden's personal pilgrimage

While typically accompanied by a large security detail and various members of the press, Biden visited Manger Square – the complex containing the Basilica of the Nativity and the Church of Saint Catherine – with just one Secret Service agent beside him.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden waves before his departure to Saudi Arabia from Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 15. (credit: Abir Sultan/Reuters) US PRESIDENT Joe Biden waves before his departure to Saudi Arabia from Ben-Gurion International Airport on July 15. (credit: Abir Sultan/Reuters)

Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan priest with the Custody of the Holy Land, also accompanied Biden on his visit to Christian holy sites in Bethlehem. Biden met with Patriarch Theophilos before visiting the Grotto – the underground cave where Jesus was born – and listening to a special prayer marking the first visit to Jerusalem by a Catholic US president.

Biden then continued on his Bethlehem visit by visiting Saint Catherine’s Church, where he prayed. 

"I always pray with a rosary"

“He took a rosary out of his pocket, saying, ‘I always pray with a rosary,’ and remembered his son Beau. He cried. He was very emotional,” Faltas said in an interview with America Magazine.

From his left-hand side, a group of children began to sing at the church, which Faltas said seemed to comfort the president.

“He walked right into the group of them, hugging them, and composed himself with them. He spoke of his son, and a barrier seemed to fall. It was his choice to join them. He wanted to go and kiss the children.”

After his emotional visit to the holiest site in Catholicism, Biden boarded a helicopter to Ben Gurion Airport, from which he flew directly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.