A group of key members of Donald Trump’s key advisers including son-in-law Jared Kushner attended a tour of Bethlehem, the centre of ancient Christian history and sacred to both Jews and Muslims, as they closed their first international trip.
Their presence comes as the president’s administration faces calls to ensure American funding of the controversial barrier built on land that Palestinians see as occupied, and as the US prepares to lead diplomatic efforts with Palestinians and the Israelis.
Nearly 200 delegates, including the president’s personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, were accompanied by a Washington rabbi and a young Christian family on a tour of the village of Bethlehem. It comes as Trump has laid claim to making the two-state solution the international consensus solution for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
One of the stops was a school classroom teaching Christian children in the nearby village of Beit Jala about the life of the Virgin Mary. Orthodox Christians see Mary as the mother of Jesus. However, the teacher could not point out any letter from Mary, or other markings on the walls, suggesting some doubt.
Guests listening to a discussion in a room with a crucifix at the school in Bethlehem. Photograph: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
Another of the stops was another room with a crucifix and a wall painted with the Jordanian flag. Kushner is a Jewish American convert to Catholicism, and has seen the waves of disaffection among Catholics in the US to their church in recent years.
There is widespread uncertainty among many Christians about where they sit on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Some sceptics argue that the second millennium is evidence that Christianity has no basis for a claim to part of what is now called Palestine. There are also growing questions about the role of Roman Catholic patriarchs and archbishops such as Pope Francis, whose refusal to condemn Israel’s settlement activity and involvement in the 2015 climate summit has upset many Muslims and Jews.
Several speakers took aim at international groups, notably the UN, which they suggested had played a major role in demonising Israeli settlements.
The US president’s international policy team were in Jerusalem on Monday, as their first foreign trip ended, after sitting down with a Jordan-based senior adviser and senior aide to the prime minister, Saeb Erekat, in Jerusalem.
Trump has earmarked $200m (£156m) for Palestinian projects as part of a May pledge, though many will need US congressional approval. The funding was initially understood to be meant for projects in Arab countries but Erekat said it was conditional on Palestinians recognising Israel as a Jewish state.
Even if Palestinians recognise Israel as Jewish, they still harbour major reservations about its right to exist and would likely choose to denounce the move as anti-Jewish and even anti-Israel.
Erekat told reporters in Jerusalem on Sunday that the Palestinians were still examining whether to accept the funding without conditions.
Meanwhile, talks with the Israelis have come under fire from some Republicans for supporting legislation that would punish countries who buy Iranian oil.
Lawmakers at a Senate hearing said on Tuesday that those holding a political view supporting an international embargo on Iran should not be able to influence the US government when it has increased sanctions.
“The United States should not take a particular view on non-proliferation and we should not be involved in any decision that the government of any country makes or would consider taking that relates to Iran,” said senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee.