( AP ) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a devout Christian, visited Jesus' traditional birthplace Wednesday in a symbolic bid to urge Israel and the Palestinians to move quickly to resume formal peace negotiations.
Rice has been meeting with Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders this week as part of preparations for a U.S.-hosted peace conference in November or December. On Tuesday, she won public support from Egypt for the gathering, and then headed to Israel and the West Bank for more talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Her day began in biblical Bethlehem in the West Bank, with a tour of the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto. In the grotto, she lit a candle and paused for prayer.
"Being here at the birthplace of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has been a very special and moving experience," said Rice, the daughter and granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers, said after the tour. "It is also, I think, a personal reminder that the prince of peace is still with us."
She said the three monotheistic religions of the Holy Land, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, "have an opportunity to overcome differences, to put aside grievances, to make religion a power of healing and a power of reconciliation, rather than a power of divisions."
Rice has said her visit to Bethlehem is part of an attempt to assure ordinary people that the U.S. is serious about helping them reach peace.
After her tour of the church, she met with civic leaders and local security chiefs, who told her about the daily difficulties of life under Israeli occupation.
Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem, is lined on two sides by Israel's West Bank separation barrier, along some stretches a towering wall of cement blocks. Town residents need difficult-to-obtain permits to cross through a wall terminal into Jerusalem, and long lines often form during rush hour.
Israel started building the West Bank barrier in 2002, initially portraying it as a temporary defense against Palestinian attackers who have killed hundreds of Israelis in recent years. However, the barrier's meandering route and massive cost suggest it could be used as the basis for a future border.
On Rice's way to and from Bethlehem, her convoy drove through a large gate in the wall, illustrating the stark reality of separation. Rice was also able to see the wall and an Israeli army watchtower from the Bethlehem hotel where she met with the civic leaders.
Palestinians who met with Rice said they told her about the disruptions caused by Israeli army checkpoints crisscrossing the West Bank, but also emphasized they are ready for a peace deal, said Palestinian Cabinet minister Ziad Bandak who joined the group.
Bandak said Rice assured the gathering that the fall conference won't be a failure. Another participant, Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes, said Rice promised to look into improving the living conditions of Palestinians.
Rice told an interfaith group of religious leaders earlier this week that she believes people are more likely drawn to violence if they don't have hope, her aides said. She said she saw that risk while growing up in the segregated South, then witnessed how people turned away from violence because they thought they could get "a fair shake."
Rice left Bethlehem after about three hours, then headed to the West Bank town of Ramallah, for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, their second meeting this week. Later Wednesday, she is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other Israeli leaders.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are trying to write a joint document of principles that would guide future peace talks. Tensions arose earlier in the week when Israeli Olmert said such a document is not a prerequisite for the conference, to be held in Annapolis, Maryland.
The Palestinians insist on such a document, even if it contains only a sentence or two about the core issues, such as the fate of disputed Jerusalem, borders, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Palestinian refugees.
The U.S. has not set a date yet or issued invitations but hopes key Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, will attend. Arab leaders have said that before accepting an invitation, they want to be sure the conference deals with substance.
On Tuesday, Rice met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo.
Aboul Gheit said the meeting "gives us a lot of trust and confidence" about American intentions for the conference, though he cautioned that preparations to hammer out the agenda could take more time.
Still, Aboul Gheit said the conference should be put off if a strong deal is not reached. "We have to go into the meeting ready to launch negotiations. If we need more time to achieve that objective, so be it. If we are short of time, let's extend the time frame," he said.