Bethlehem visit "moving experience" for Rice

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BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Oct 17 (Reuters) US Secretary of State ondoleezza Rice toured the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem today, lit a candle and voiced hope that religion could be a force for reconciliation in the West Asia.

''Being here, at the birthplace of my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience,'' Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Christian clergymen, told reporters after visiting the church.

Her visit, she said, helped remind her that ''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, a power of reconciliation, rather than a power of division''.

Residents of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank just down the road from Jerusalem, looked on with seeming indifference as Rice's motorcade swept into the city with sirens blaring.

''Peace Be With You,'' read an Israeli Tourism Ministry sign on a high concrete wall Israel has constructed near the entrance to the city of Jesus's birth, a barrier that Palestinians consider a hated symbol of Israeli occupation.

With the smell of incense wafting through the air, Rice, who has described herself as deeply religious, visited the grotto revered as the birthplace of Jesus and lit a candle as a priest chanted nearby.

Rice came to the region on Sunday to try to bridge gaps between the Palestinians and Israel over parameters for a West Asia conference expected to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, in November or December.

Tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem's economy, has dried up over the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Rice then met Palestinian civic leaders, business people and academics for a discussion at a Bethlehem hotel in which aides said she hoped to convey to ordinary Palestinians how serious Washington is about achieving peace and to hear their views.

BARRIER The average number of visitors to Bethlehem has plunged to as low as 20,000 a month from about 100,000 before the Palestinian uprising began in 2000 as the last major U.S. peace effort collapsed. Unemployment is estimated at 65 per cent.

More than 3,000 Christians, about 10 per cent of the community in Bethlehem, have left the city since 2000, according to United Nations statistics.

Israel has defended the construction of the wall at Bethlehem's entrance and a barrier snaking through the West Bank as a way to prevent Palestinian suicide bombings.

The World Court has called the project illegal because it is being built on occupied land.

After her visit to Bethlehem, Rice travelled to the West Bank city of Ramallah for further talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom she last met on Monday.

Rice also planned to meet Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni later and have dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

She has been trying to help Israeli and Palestinian leaders agree on a common document that would serve as the basis for the international meeting to be held later this year, and that US officials hope could lead to formal peace negotiations.

REUTERS PD ND1745

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