US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prayed at the Biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ on Wednesday, promoting religion in the quest for Middle East peace during intense diplomacy.
“Being here at the birthplace of my lord and saviour Jesus Christ has been a very special and moving experience,” said the top US diplomat, a devout Christian whose father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers.
Blanket security was clamped across the West Bank town of Bethlehem, whose tourism lifeline has been hard hit by the violence which erupted following the breakdown of the last US-sponsored peace talks.
Armed Palestinian security officers lined the streets as her armoured convoy swept past shuttered shops and practically empty streets as few locals turned out to see the first visit by a US secretary of state in nearly a decade.
Wearing a light green trouser suit, Rice spent about half an hour inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, visiting its Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic chapels and the exact spot where Christians believe Christ was born.
She prayed and later emerged, saying her visit had been a personal reminder of the power of religion to heal and reconcile those who live in the Holy Land — where Rice has said it is time for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“These great monotheist religions that have inhabited this land together have an opportunity to overcome differences, to put aside grievances, to make the power of religion a power of healing and a power of reconciliation.
“What these great holy sites remind us of is that the three great religions indeed share a common vision of peace and a common vision of our humanity. That is what I will ultimately take away from this visit,” she said.
Palestinian tourism minister Khulud Duaibess, who accompanied Rice and her entourage around the church, told reporters he hoped the visit had inspired the diplomat with new motivation to prepare for a US-sponsored peace meeting.
“I hope it will provide the secretary with new energy to face the challenge of the coming preparation for the conference, which we hope will bring peace to the whole region and the Palestinian territories,” he said.
Outside the church, dozens of wives and mothers of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons rallied calling for the release of their relatives.
Rice then met businessmen and local officials ahead of scheduled talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for a second time this week and meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
It was the first visit to Bethlehem by a US top diplomat since Madeleine Albright visited the town in 1999 as Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in the intensive peace talks which broke down a year later at a Camp David summit.
Rice is on a five-day visit to the region, her seventh this year, in an effort to broker agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the outlines of a peace deal to be negotiated after the meeting in Annapolis, Maryland.