Rice visits Jesus' birthplace – Bethlehem

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this morning — reputed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

The visit was described as “a break from peacemaking” — but she must have whispered a prayer or two, to help her efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian negotiators closer to agreement.

It was later reported that Rice lit a candle in the Church of the Nativity.

Reuters added, “The smell of incense wafted through the air of the hushed church as Rice visited the grotto revered as the birthplace of Jesus”.

Rice told journalists, according to a State Department transcript, that “being here at the birthplace of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has been a very special and moving experience. I was saying earlier that I think I could spell Bethlehem before I could spell my name because it was so often in the stories that children follow to learn about the life of Jesus Christ, and it all started here in Bethlehem. It is also, I think, personally for me a reminder that the Prince of Peace is still with us and still with me and with all of us, but that also these great monotheistic 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 rather than a power of division. And that is 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. And that is what I ultimately take away from this trip“.

It was reported that Rice also exchanged words with Palestinian residents of Bethlehem, but details on that are still coming in.

Reuters observed that the route was apparently not lined with cheering spectators: “Residents of Bethlehem, in the West Bank just outside Jerusalem, looked on with seeming indifference as Rice’s motorcade swept into the city with sirens blaring … Unemployment in the town is estimated at about 65 percent. More than 3,000 Christians, about 10 percent of the community in Bethlehem, have left the city since 2000, according to United Nations statistics”.

Rice also had to pass, again, through The Wall. Reuters drily recorded that: ” ‘Peace Be With You’, read an Israeli Tourism Ministry sign on a high concrete wall section of the West Bank fence Israel has constructed near the entrance to the city of Jesus’s birth”. The Reuters report on Rice’s visit to Bethlehem is published in Haaretz here.

That enormous and grotesque sign is nearly the full height of The Wall, at least 25 feet high, at that place, and is painted in bright colors in three languages – Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

entrance to Bethlehem  - photo by Rev. Julie Roweh

(Photo by Rev. Julie Rowe, a Lutheran Minister who lives and works in Jerusalem)

Rice apparently did not visit Rachel’s Tomb, a highly-secured site in Bethlehem that is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.  It has been converted in recent years into an Israeli mini-settlement and seminary compound.   Right inside the Wall, virtually on the other side of this “Peace Be With You” wall , Rachel’s Tomb is accessed by escorted busloads of Jewish visitors through a special iron gate that can be opened on notice.

AP reported that “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 [n.b., legendary] Palestinian governor of the Bethlehem district. ‘Rice is human, and I think the wall will have an influence on her heart and mind’.” The AP report on Rice’s meeting with some Palestinians in Bethlehem was published in the Jerusalem Post here.

It was Rice’s third day in Jerusalem and Ramallah, trying to prepare the ground in advance of a peace conference she’s been trying to organize in Annapolis later this year. If the going is getting tough, are the tough getting going? After leaving Bethlehem Rice was headed to Ramallah to meet with the Palestinian negotiators — she would have taken an internal West Bank road, and have been driven through a fascinating arid hilly region, whizzing through a number of internal West Bank checkpoints, between Bethlehem and Ramallah — and she could not have missed the burgeoning Israeli settlements in that region, with rather handsome houses and attractive landscaping.

This bit of “tourism” must have given Rice a little bit more familiarity with what is going on here.

Later, she is due to meet Israeli officials again in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leadership has appeared to be trying to cooperate with Rice’s efforts, but the Israelis are throwing all their doubts at her.  The press is full of dizzying and mostly rather dire analyses.

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