On his first trip to Israel in 1998 Texas governor George W Bush read his favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace” aloud with tear-filled eyes, standing at the place where his ‘favourite philosopher’ Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
He also toured Jerusalem’s Old City, site of the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus carried his cross toward the site of his crucifixion, and helicoptered over the Jordan River with Ariel Sharon, but he didn’t visit Palestinian territory at that time, so didn’t manage to tick Bethlehem off his pilgrimage list.
Ten years later in January 2008, visiting the Holy Land as President of America, Bush set aside some time on Thursday to visit the little town in the occupied West Bank where Jesus is believed to have been born.
After landing by helicopter, the president was whisked quickly to the Church of the Nativity in a motorcade, past Israel’s towering concrete and barbed wire barrier, military checkpoints and red-roofed Jewish settlements, too quick to notice a handful of demonstrators gathered on the outskirts of Bethlehem, waving Palestinian flags, pictures of family members in Israeli jails, and signs saying “Stop Israeli terror”, “Set our prisoners free”, “No apartheid walls”, and “Zionism is racism”.
Metal barriers were used to push small groups of onlookers back up the empty streets of shuttered shops and closed restaurants leading to the empty Manger Square, guarded by thousands of Palestinian security forces, as helicopters clattered overhead.
Snipers patrolled the roof of the sixth century Byzantine church as Bush descended into the underground chapel, the Grotto of the Nativity, where he lit a candle and prayed at the believed site of Jesus’ birth.
Emerging after less than half an hour, the president described the experience as moving. “A gift of that Almighty to each man, woman and child on the face of the Earth is freedom. And I felt it strongly here. For those of us who practise the Christian faith, there isn’t a more holy site than where our saviour was born.”
“This has to be a very personal trip, and one he has wanted to make since he took office,” said Jim Towey, ex director of the president’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. “He loves the Lord and he’s in the Lord’s front yard. … Being in these holy places must be very emotional for him and must make his heart well up with gratitude to God. In that sense, he is no different than other pilgrims.”
Despite the Lord’s instructions to ‘Love your enemies’, Bethlehem’s 72 year old Christian mayor Victor Batarseh was not invited to meet Mr Bush, because he is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), an organization which the US State Department considers ‘terrorist’.
Amid his tour of Christian sites Bush also laid a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem on Friday morning, a site that memorializes the Jews exterminated by Nazi Germany during World War II., and an obligatory stopover for virtually every foreign leader that visits the Jewish state.
During an hour-long tour of the memorial a teary-eyed president told Secretary of State Condaleezza Rice that the U.S. should have bombed Auschwitz to halt the killing.
“I would hope if many people in the world would come to this place, it would be a sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil, we must resist it,” he said, curiously contradicting his saviour’s words “that ye resist not evil.”
On Friday afternoon Bush flew by helicopter from Jerusalem to wind up his tour of Christian sites at the village of Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and visited the octagon-shaped Church of the Beatitudes, a Catholic Franciscan chapel built in 1938 with the support of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on the spot where Jesus is believed to have preached his Sermon on the Mount, laying out core teachings and his call to “turn the other cheek”.
Bush was welcomed by several priests and nuns from the Chapel, and later, after two black-gowned monks had read him verses from the Bible and pointed towards the different holy sites in the area, he was presented with a statue of Jesus inscribed; “Blessed are the Peace-makers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”
While in the country Bush predicted that Israel and the Palestinians could sign a peace treaty by the end of his term in January 2009.
In the visitors’ book at the Holocaust memorial Bush wrote “Long Live Israel”, and at a press conference before leaving to continue his trip to Arab countries he said that Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip has delivered nothing but misery to the Palestinian people.
“There is a competing vision taking place in Gaza and in my judgement Hamas (who) I felt ran on a campaign that ‘we’re going to improve your life’… have delivered nothing but misery.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called Bush’s comments a “declaration of war”. “Bush’s visit and remarks have indicated that his visit came to support the occupation and has brought nothing to the Palestinian people but evil,” he said.
At the beginning of his term in Office as president, when asked by a reporter to elaborate why he chose Jesus as his favourite philosopher, Bush replied: “When you turn your heart and life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that’s what happened to me.”
Perhaps it’s time he had another look at the words of love and tolerance preached by his Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. 2000 years ago, Jewish Jesus lived in a country under foreign occupation and he called for peace and brotherhood. 2000 years later, modern Palestine is oppressed, divided and occupied by the Israeli state. If Jesus were alive today he would be an Arab.
MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: firstname.lastname@example.org