U.S. President Barack Obama, visiting the West Bank city of Bethlehem, stopped twice to light candles for his family and himself: first at the Church of Nativity grotto, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born, then at the adjacent Catholic Church of St. Catherine.
On the last leg of his four-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Obama also took time for a few moments of private prayer and contemplation, said Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, who was the first to greet the American leader inside the church, welcoming him as “a messenger of peace and reconciliation.”
Obama was then greeted by religious leaders according to the Status Quo protocol that governs holy sites: the custos of the Holy Land, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, followed by Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Sevan Gharibian. Muslim religious leaders and Palestinian leaders also greeted Obama, who was accompanied by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas throughout the visit.
Obama viewed the Church of the Nativity’s floor mosaics, the Greek Orthodox liturgical platform, the Armenian altar, the Grotto of the Nativity, and the statue of the baby Jesus at the Church of St. Catherine.
Obama prayed again at the Church of St. Catherine, Father Pizzaballa told Catholic News Service following the visit. Obama also spoke about the importance of keeping a Christian presence in Jerusalem, said the custos.
Father Pizzaballa, who explained to the president about the Catholic community in the Holy Land, described the president as “very friendly, very simple and not difficult to talk to.”
Obama “said he felt the situation was very complicated but that he will do his best to help the people here and also to help the Christian presence,” said Father Pizzaballa.
Patriarch Theophilos described the visit as a “pilgrimage.”