Rice speaks of peace in Bethlehem visit

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BETHLEHEM, Oct 17 (Reuters) The search for peace in the West Asia took US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Bethlehem today, where she toured the Church of the Nativity and voiced hope for reconciliation.

''Being here, at the birthplace of my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience,'' Rice said.

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.

It was a rare sightseeing tour for Rice, who came to 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 fallen sharply over the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

''Normally we ... come in and we have a series of official meetings. (Rice has) been uncomfortable with that for the last several trips. The reason is she doesn't feel like she gets out and touches the societies very much,'' a US official said.

The smell of incense wafted through the air of the hushed church as Rice, who has described herself as a deeply religious person, visited the grotto revered as the birthplace of Jesus.

She later met Palestinian civic leaders, business people and academics for a roundtable discussion at a Bethlehem hotel.

US officials said the meeting was aimed at conveying to ordinary Palestinians just how serious Washington is about achieving peace and to hear their views.

BARRIER Bethlehem has paid a heavy price in the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

The average number of visitors to the city has plunged to as low as 20,000 a month from about 100,000 before the Palestinian uprising began in 2000. Unemployment in the town is estimated at about 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.

Citing security concerns, Israel has defended the construction of the wall at Bethlehem's entrance and a barrier snaking through the West Bank, a project the World Court has called illegal because it is being built on occupied land.

After her visit to Bethlehem, Rice was to travel 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 in the day and have dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

She has been trying to help Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree on a common document that would serve as the basis for the international gathering.

Reuters PD GC1500

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