There is an important aspect to Barack Obama's Middle East trip this week that is overshadowed by the announced issues of Iranian nuclear plans, the Syria civil war, upheaval in the Arab world and a desire to restart peace negotiations but is no less important.
The President, who began his first term with an effort to repair relations with the Muslim world, this week will be carrying a message to Muslims about the need to respect the religion of others.
He will do that at the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
On Thursday he will begin his day by going to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are "a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told this reporter and other journalists Thursday.
This is an important message not just to Israelis but to Palestinians, particularly Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader, who Obama will be visiting in Ramallah right afterwards. Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, has been waging a campaign to delegitimize Israel and deny any Jewish links to Jerusalem.
Six months ago he made a speech referring to the "alleged Temple" in the Israeli capital with 3,000 years of Jewish history, and accused the Israeli government of trying to "Judaize" it and "eternalize its occupation." Jerusalem, Abbas said, "will forever be Arabic, Islamic and Christian." No mention of Jewish ties.
When Arafat made a similar comment during a meeting with President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the Israeli leader asked him where he thought Jesus had chased out the moneychangers. "From the mosque?"
Rhodes said "seeing the ancient connection through the Dead Sea Scrolls" will be "a very powerful experience" for Obama.
On Friday the President will go to Mt. Herzl to lay wreaths at the graves of Theodore Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, and then visit Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust. From there he will go to Bethlehem to tour the Church of the Nativity to deliver another message to Abbas and Muslims about the need for religious tolerance.
Touring the church where Jesus was said to have been born "will be a very powerful experience for the President" and an opportunity for "observing firsthand that history and experience." The church, Rhodes noted, is "important to Christians in the region and around the world."
The visit to the church is also intended to send a message to Islamist governments in the region, notably Egypt, Syria and Iraq, where Christians are facing increased persecution.
Rhodes said it is "important for the President to go to the Church of the Nativity" because:
"[T]his has been a very difficult -- there’s been a very difficult series of challenges for Christian communities in the region -- not just in the West Bank, but in places like Syria and Egypt and Iraq. And recognizing the very deep and ancient Christian communities in that part of the world I think is an important thing to do, because in these transitions, we’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities and we’ve underscored the need for pluralism. And I think the visit to the Church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal."
In a region that gave birth to three major religions, intolerance continues to be a flashpoint and an obstacle to peace. President Obama is right to raise the issue and should continue if peace is to have a chance.
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