May 23, 2005
ABU GHOSH, Israel - 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.
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.
From Israel, Mrs. Bush traveled to Cairo, where she met with Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak at Ittihadiyya Palace. The two women then taped a segment for "Alam Simsim," the Egyptian version of "Sesame Street," with a peach-colored puppet named Khokha. "Mama Suzanne" and "Auntie Laura," as Khokha called the first ladies, talked about the importance of reading to children.
Mrs. Bush's low-key travels Monday were in contrast to her stops Sunday at sites sacred to Muslims and Jews.
Asked about the protests during an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Mrs. Bush said she understands resentments that have been built up, in part because of reports and pictures of prisoner abuse.
"I know from visiting Afghanistan ... that many, many people are glad our troops are there, that we are giving them a chance to rebuild their country," she said. "All of us, everyone ... deplore the photographs that we've seen, the reports that we've heard of prisoner abuse, but that's not really not what happens (with U.S. forces) ... This is a handful of people."
She said she feels that the American presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia "is really wanted and is needed" to ensure nation-building and peacemaking.
Asked on NBC's "Today" show if she had felt endangered during the tours in the Middle East, the first lady replied, "No, I did not at all. I think maybe the reports that you all have seen have been slightly exaggerated. ... I have never felt at all unsafe."
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, Mrs. Bush 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 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.