Rice Visits Bethlehem, Witnesses Conflict's Toll

Site of Jesus' Birth a 'Prison' After Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Oct. 17, 2007 —

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ventured today into the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where she lit a candle at the birthplace of Jesus and the massive concrete security barrier that has turned the once-vibrant city into something of a ghost town.

Rice is in the Middle East in an effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in advance of a summit President Bush hopes to hold later this year in Annapolis, Md.

Rice Moved by Visit to Jesus' Birthplace

The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Rice was clearly moved by her experience in Bethlehem.

As she emerged from the Church of the Nativity, she proclaimed the visit "personally for me a reminder the Prince of Peace is still with us, and still with me and still with all of us" and made a religious appeal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"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," Rice said.

Rice has been in the region for four days, but it is unclear whether she is making any progress.

She met today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the second time on this trip. After the meeting, a spokesman for Abbas told reporters, "So far, the Israelis do not have a serious enough effort."

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Takes Toll on Bethlehem

On the 20-minute drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Rice had a firsthand look at what the conflict is doing to Bethlehem, a city that less than a decade ago attracted an average of 1.6 million tourists and religious pilgrims a year.

Rice's motorcade drove through the imposing Israeli security checkpoint and along the Israeli security wall that cuts through Bethlehem. Souvenir stores stood closed, some of them vacant.

Priests representing three Christian sects gave Rice a private tour of the Church of the Nativity, showing her a tile mosaic that dates back to the days of Constantine in the fourth century.

The Church of the Nativity is built atop the location where Jesus Christ was believed to have been born. Rice went down into the church in a grotto, where a 14-point star marks the place of Jesus' birth.

As Armenian Orthodox priests chanted in prayer and the smoke of incense filled the air, Rice lit a candle and seemed to say a prayer.

Rice called it "a very special and moving experience" and said, "I learned to spell Bethlehem before I learned to spell my name."

Holy Town a 'Prison'

Local Palestinian Christians told ABC News that tourists and religious pilgrims have all but disappeared since the Israeli security barrier two years ago.

"It is like a prison," said Mike Canawati, a Palestinian Christian who owns Three Arches, the largest souvenir store in Bethlehem. Like most people in the city, he is not allowed to travel to the other side of the wall because he doesn't have the necessary permit.

"I am not a terrorist," Canawati said. "I am not a Jihadi. I'm 100 percent Christian. We hope this will all end soon and there will be no wall."

Rice also met with civic leaders at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem.

The hotel manager, also a Palestinian Christian, told ABC News that his hotel is only at 20 percent occupancy. But he said this is a slight improvement from last year when occupancy at the hotel was at 3 percent to 5 percent.

"To break even," he said, "I need 40 percent."