U.S. First Lady Not Surprised by Protesters at Mideast Holy Sites

The Associated Press - May 23, 2005

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush said Monday she was not surprised to be met by protesters during her tour of Mideast holy sites and pledged the United States will do all it can to help resolve age-old conflicts.

"As we all know, this is a place of very high tensions and high emotions," the first lady said while standing in the garden courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection. "And you can understand why when you see the people with a deep and sincere faith in their religion all living side by side."

Mrs. Bush said the protesters who heckled her during Sunday's visits to the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall did not surprise her and she denied that they overshadowed her goodwill visit.

"I think the protests were very expected. If you didn't expect them, you didn't know what it would be like when you got here," she said. "Everyone knows how the tensions are and, believe me, I was very, very welcomed by most people."

Mrs. Bush was visiting sites sacred to all three major religions born in the region, winding up with a stop Monday at the Church of the Resurrection at Abu Ghosh, a predominantly Muslim town where some believe Jesus appeared on Easter.

"I think that Abu Ghosh, as we leave Israel, can show us what it's like when the people of three religions that have so many holy sites here in the Holy Land indeed can live in peace with each other," she said. The first lady was heading to Cairo later.

As Mrs. Bush toured the 12th-century church, nuns and monks sang Psalm 150 in Hebrew as a symbol of the religious cultures coexisting in the region.

The peaceful visit was in contrast to her stops Sunday at sites sacred to Muslims and Jews.

At the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, protesters demanded that the U.S. release Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American imprisoned for spying for Israel. During a visit to the Dome of the Rock, she faced heckling from angry Palestinians. One man yelled, "How dare you come in here! Why your husband kill Muslim?"

Mrs. Bush's five-day visit to the Middle East, which also included stops in Jordan and Egypt, was intended partly to help defuse anti-American sentiment in the region. Strains have arisen because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and allegations that American interrogators have mistreated Muslim prisoners.

Some visitors that Mrs. Bush encountered near the Dome of the Rock, a mosque on a hilltop compound known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, shouted at her in Arabic. "None of you belong in here!" one man yelled as Mrs. Bush and her entourage arrived.

Mrs. Bush removed her shoes as she entered the mosque and walked barefoot on the red carpet. She held a black scarf tightly around her head as she gazed up at the gilded dome and the colorful mosaics.

As she left, visitors and media grew so aggressive that Israeli police locked arms to form a human chain to block people getting too close. U.S. Secret Service agents packed tightly around her.

Pollard's supporters also held up signs outside the residence of Israeli President Moshe Katsav, where Mrs. Bush had tea with his wife, Gila Katsav, and other Israeli women.

No protesters were evident when Mrs. Bush had lunch with leading Palestinian women at a hotel in Jericho, a town that Israel recently turned over to Palestinian control, or when she visited the ruins of an 8th-century palace in the West Bank town of Jericho and appealed for peace.

"It will take a lot of baby steps, and I'm sure it will be a few steps backward on the way," she said.

"But I want to encourage the people that I met with earlier and the women that I just met with that the United States will do what they can in this process. It also requires the work of the people here, of the Palestinians and the Israelis, to come to the table, obviously. And we'll see."

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