NEW YORK — When he visits the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem next week, US President Barack Obama will be looking to signal solidarity with the Middle East’s Christian communities, the White House said on Thursday.
Many of the region’s Christian populations are embattled minorities, and Obama’s trip to the church, believed by many to be the site of Jesus’ birth, is intended as a message to the region’s oft-persecuted Christian minority.
“It’s been a very difficult series of challenges for Christian communities in the region,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said Thursday on a conference call with reporters.
These challenges were “not just in the West Bank, but [also in] places like Syria, Egypt and Iraq. And recognizing the very deep and ancient Christian communities in that part of the world is a very important thing to do,” Rhodes said.
In the upheavals currently underway in the region, “we’ve underscored the need to protect the rights of minorities. The visit to the Church of the Nativity is intended to send that signal.”
The millennia-old Christian communities of the Middle East have dwindled dramatically in the 20th century, with severe persecution reported in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Libya, Gaza to Iraq.
Obama’s visit to the region has been framed by the White House as a series of messages. The White House has earnestly downplayed the significance of the trip for policy, explaining that no new peace plan or key policy question is behind the visit.
Rather, officials have suggested, the trip is seen by Washington as a signal to the region’s various actors that Washington will remain involved and supportive of its allies.
“My goal on this trip is to listen,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 news in an interview aired Thursday night.
The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency reported late Wednesday that the president may limit his time in the West Bank to four hours, only visiting Bethlehem and skipping the Palestinian administrative center of Ramallah.
The report quoted a senior Palestinian Authority source who said Obama would meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, and that together they would visit the Church of the Nativity.
But the White House conference call Thursday detailed trip plans that included a visit to Ramallah on Thursday, the second day of Obama’s trip. The president will meet Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, together with a group of young Palestinians, while in the city.
The Church of the Nativity has been a political lightning rod in recent months after UNESCO put it on the list of Endangered World Heritage Sites in June, at the request of the Palestinians and against the objections of Jerusalem and Washington.
Palestinians touted the recognition by the UN cultural body as an affirmation of sovereignty.
The visit to Israel will include meetings with President Shimon Peres, nearly half a day of consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Netanyahu and Obama “have spent more time together one-on-one than frankly any other leader since the president came into office,” Rhodes noted — and visits to Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem and the Israel Museum.
The president’s visit to Jerusalem is “an important opportunity for the president to consult [with Israeli leaders] on a broad range of issues on which we cooperate,” Rhodes said, including Iran, Syria, the fallout from the Arab Spring and the peace process.
But “more than that in some respects, this is an opportunity for the president to speak directly to the Israeli people. There’s no substitute for the president going directly to Israel… to spend some time speaking directly to the Israeli people,” he said.
Rhodes, together with US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who also spoke to reporters, referred repeatedly to the president’s “speech to the Israeli people,” which will take place Thursday night at Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma International Convention Center.
“The president very much wanted to have the opportunity to speak not just to Israelis, but Israeli young people,” Rhodes said.
The speech will focus on “the nature of the ties” between the two countries, “the broad agenda we work on” when it comes to security, peace talks and the economy, and “will speak to the future of that relationship,” he continued.