First Published: 2008-01-10

 
US President prays in Bethlehem
 

Bush visits Church of Nativity in Palestinian city on pilgrimage to some of Christianity's holiest sites.

 

Middle East Online

By Joseph Krauss - BETHLEHEM, West Bank

Bush (R) and Rice (C) light candles in the Grotto of the Nativity Church

US President George W. Bush prayed at the traditional birthplace of Jesus on Thursday, in a Bethlehem swamped by security forces, his first stop on a pilgrimage to some of Christianity's holiest sites.

The president -- a fervent Christian -- landed by helicopter and then was whisked to the Church of Nativity in a motorcade through streets largely deserted as part of a massive security operation aimed at protecting him.

"For those of us who practise the Christian faith, there isn't a more holy site than where our saviour was born," Bush said as he came out of the church.

Thousands of Palestinian security forces fanned out across the town in the occupied West Bank, shutting off all major roads to the church, over the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born in a stable.

Snipers patrolled the roof of the church near a hanging plastic Santa Claus, as well as nearby buildings, while Bush remained inside for less than an hour.

But Bush's visit to the West Bank -- only the second one to the Palestinian territories by a sitting US president -- failed to impress the locals.

"He comes here, they close all the shops, they don't let us work," said Alaa, a 26-year-old Christian who works at a restaurant near Manger Square in front of the church and who was sent home ahead of the president's arrival.

Elite Palestinian presidential guards used metal barriers to push small groups of onlookers back up the streets leading to the empty square as helicopters buzzed overhead.

Several dozen youths gathered behind barricades near Manger Square, but every time they tried to cheer, police silenced them.

"Stop making so much noise, show some respect," one policeman snapped at kids behind the barricade. "There are journalists here."

One protestor stood nearby holding up a sign reading: "If Bush does not end the occupation then there is no meaning to visits like this."

Amid the massive security operation, few Bethlehem residents caught a glimpse of the president, widely unpopular among Palestinians because of his perceived overwhelming support of Washington's main ally Israel.

"They brought 3,000 dogs to sniff for explosives. They closed all the shops. What is he so afraid of? World leaders come here all the time," said Rami, a Christian shopowner.

"I think he is scared because he has so many enemies, because he has slaughtered so many people in Iraq," he added.

Bethlehem's own mayor Victor Batarseh was not invited to the ceremony because he is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which the US State Department considers a terror organisation.

"I have not been told anything. I was simply asked to have the streets cleaned, which has been done," the 72-year old Christian mayor said.

Residents said the security measures were far more draconian than the last time a US president visited -- 1998's trip by Bill Clinton.

"When Clinton came he spent some time with us. He ate here," said an older woman with a headscarf tucked into a heavy winter coat. "Don't use my name or they will think I am a terrorist," she added with a smile.

A couple dozen demonstrators gathered on the outskirts of Bethlehem, waving Palestinian flags and signs saying "Stop Israeli terror" and "Set our prisoners free."

Some held the yellow flags of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party, while others held pictures of family members held in Israeli jails.

Bush's first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories since taking office is primarily aimed at encouraging revived peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians on a regional tour which will include Arab allies.

But Bush will also be tracing the footsteps of Jesus Christ, whom he once described as his favorite philosopher and whose teachings he says have informed his presidency, including his divisive foreign policies.

On Friday Bush will fly north to the Sea of Galilee, along whose shores Jesus delivered many of his most famous teachings and where he is said to have healed the sick.

There the president will visit the Mount of the Beatitudes, the likely spot where Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount, as it is best known, in which he summarised the law of God in nine succinct verses.

One of the beatitudes -- "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" -- has been invoked by past leaders attempting to resolve the decades-old Middle East conflict.

 

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