Laura Bush heckled at J'lem holy sites
Anti-American Muslim protesters heckled US First Lady Laura Bush as she visited Jerusalem's Temple Mount on Sunday during her Middle East good-will trip, while dozens of Jewish demonstrators called for the release of imprisoned American spy Jonathan Pollard during her stop at the Western Wall.
Bush's early-afternoon visit to Jerusalem's Old City on a warm, sun-drenched summer-like day began with a brief stop at the Western Wall, which was marked by a small but loud protest carried out by several dozen predominantly religious teens, who carried pictures of the incarcerated spy and called for his immediate release.
Wearing a black scarf tightly around her head, and accompanied by Israeli First Lady Gila Katsav, Bush made her way to the Wall from the nearby plaza ringed by American and Israeli secret service agents as well as Jerusalem police, and surrounded by a crowd of journalists and onlookers. As is customary, Bush placed a small note in the 2,000-year-old wall, with a message she had written over on the plane ride to Israel, the contents of which she declined to disclose.
As she entered the wall compound, a group of a couple dozen female teens on the woman's side of the wall began chanting "Free Pollard now," just meters away from the First Lady, while a separate group of young men held a similar protest at the Western Wall plaza further away. Earlier, protesters had also stood outside the residence of President Moshe Katsav, Mrs. Bush's first stop, chanting, "Pollard, the people are with you."
Pollard, a former US Navy intelligence analyst, is serving a life sentence in a US prison for spying for Israel. Bush did not speak to reporters at the holy site, and within minutes of her arrival was whisked back into her motorcade, for the short drive to the Lion's Gate for her entry into the Temple Mount.
As she entered the Dome of the Rock walking barefoot on the red carpet, Bush was immediately heckled by a group of Arab women. "You are not welcome here. Why are you hassling our Muslims? How dare you come in here?" an elderly Muslim woman one yelled, while another shouted "Koran, Koran" at her in Arabic. Holding her scarf tightly around her head, the heavily guarded Bush gazed up at the gilded dome and the colorful mosaics on the marble walls and just smiled.
"It's so beautiful, just magnificent," she said, gazing up at its famed golden dome. A quarter of an hour later, she exited the compound with police linking arms and forming a virtual human chain around her to ward off the crowd. Her eighteen-vehicle motorcade then sped off to the nearby West Bank city of Jericho, where she participated in a round-table discussion with eight prominent Palestinian women.
Later Sunday, Bush returned to Jerusalem and visited Yad Vashem, where the First Lady laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Bush was to spend the night at a posh Jerusalem hotel, before concluding her lightning 24-hour trip to Israel with a visit to a church in the Israeli-Arab town of Abu Ghosh on Monday morning. The trip was Bush's second visit to Israel, having previously accompanied her husband to the country in 1998 when he served as Governor of Texas. She then flies on to Egypt, the last stop on her five-day Middle East trip.
Following her visit to Israel she will travel on to Egypt. On the plane to Jordan, Bush spoke optimistically about the current diplomatic process. "I really, truly believe that we're as close as we've ever been to peace, to the idea of Israel, a safe and secure Israel side-by-side with a free Palestine. And I think it's unbelievable. I think it will be wonderful for the world if that happens. So of course I want to encourage both sides to continue on the steps."
Bush is in the Middle East to promote women's rights and education. On Saturday, in a speech to the World Economic Forum, she encouraged Middle Eastern leaders to expand women's participation in their societies as she herself took on a new role as an international goodwill ambassador.
"Freedom, especially freedom for women, is more than the absence of oppression," she said. "It's the right to speak and vote and worship freely. Human rights require the rights of women." She said there has been "extraordinary progress" for women in the Middle East and nearby regions. She said was delighted that Kuwait extended the right to vote to women last week, drawing the singular outburst of applause to interrupt her speech.
Women can now vote in all Middle Eastern nations where elections are held except Saudi Arabia. The Persian Gulf nations of Bahrain, Qatar and Oman all have held their first elections in recent years and have allowed women to cast ballots.
The president's wife, who enjoys high approval ratings in the United States, is using her popularity to extend a friendly face overseas. In recent months, she's also made a brief surprise visit to predominantly Muslim Afghanistan. With anti-American demonstrators taking to the streets to protest allegations that US interrogators have mistreated Muslim captives, Bush stressed her country's religious inclusion.
"In the United States, we respect the traditions of all faiths," she said. Bush said the region was making strides in improving democracy. She cited recent elections in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, democratic demonstrations in Lebanon and elections in nearby Afghanistan. "Now we are seeing a springtime of hope across the Middle East," she said.
AP contributed to this report.
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