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 met ordinary Palestinians.
''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.
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.
It was a rare sightseeing tour for Rice, who arrived in the region on Sunday to prepare the ground for a West Asia conference on Palestinian statehood expected to be held in Annapolis, Maryland in November or December.
''Normally we ... come in and we have a series of official meetings. She's 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 visited the grotto revered as the birthplace of Jesus.
Tourism, the lifeblood of Bethlehem's economy, has fallen sharply over the past seven years of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Israel says the wall at Bethlehem's entrance and the barrier it is constructing in the West Bank, a project the World Court has called illegal because it is being built on occupied land, are necessary security measures.
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. 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.
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.
She held talks in Egypt yesterday, where a senior US official travelling with her said she had made progress in mustering Egyptian support for the Annapolis conference, making it easier to mobilise broader Arab backing.
Rice visited Egypt after two days trying to persuade Israeli and Palestinian leaders to narrow their difference on a common document that would serve as the basis for the international gathering.
Reuters RN DS1410