U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lit a candle and prayed for peace in the Holy Land on Wednesday when she stopped at the grotto where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.
Bethlehem was one of several stops Rice made during her visit to the West Bank and Israel ahead of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference later this year. Her visit was meant to show citizens in the Holy Land that the United States is serious about bringing peace to the divided region.
"Being here at the birthplace of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience," said Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers, after the tour, according to The Associated Press. "It is also, I think, a personal reminder that the prince of peace is still with us."
She highlighted that the three largest monotheistic religions of the Holy Land – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have the opportunity to "overcome differences, to put aside grievances, to make religion a power of healing and a power of reconciliation, rather than a power of divisions."
While in the West Bank, Rice heard from community leaders about the difficulties they face living under Israeli occupation. Among the grievances is protest over the cement wall blocking Palestinians from entering Jerusalem. Permits to cross the wall are hard to obtain.
"We talked to her and said 'you came to a city to which you crossed many miles and crossed checkpoints and crossed the barrier and saw in Bethlehem how the barrier is suffocating the holy city,'" recalled Issa Qaraqa, a Palestinian lawmaker from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, according to AP.
In addition to asserting that the barrier severely restricts Palestinians who live nearby, opponents of the wall say it violates international law and that it is an illegal attempt to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security.
"I hope that Rice has understood by her visit in Bethlehem the situation on the ground in a new light," Qaraqa stated.
Despite protests, Israel and its supporters have repeatedly defended the wall, arguing that it stops Palestinian suicide bombers and keeps Israel safe.
But while the United States has stood as a friend and partner of Israel since its independence in 1948, Christians here are becoming increasingly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian claims to their disputed lands.
Some Christian Zionists believe that Israel should by no means ever have to concede land to Palestinians, arguing that there was never a Palestinian state. Others are in favor of a two-state solution including the 34 prominent evangelical leaders who signed a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush in favor forming a Palestinian state.
"Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine," the letter read.
Signers included, among others, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Richard Stearns, president of World Vision.
While, Rice did not comment on Israel's West Bank separation, she did note that she grew up in the segregated U.S. South where people turned away from violence when they felt they could get a fair chance in life.