Tour was intended to draw attention to plight of Christians in Middle East, but many are now refusing to meet him
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Pence was to have met spiritual heads of different Christian traditions. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters
The lights are already illuminated on Bethlehem’s huge Christmas tree in Manger Square.
Nearby, at the narrow entrance to the Church of the Nativity, holiday pilgrims queue daily for their chance to descend into the cramped subterranean shrine said to be the birthplace of Jesus.
One person, however, who will not be entering the church, barring a last-minute diplomatic miracle, is the US vice-president, Mike Pence.
A proposed visit to Bethlehem and the Nativity church – now cancelled – had been intended as the highlight of a tour of the Middle East next week.
That tour has been thrown into disarray by Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the consequent refusal of Palestinian and many Christian leaders to meet Pence.
Part of the reason is that Pence – who stood next to Trump during his announcement – is seen by Palestinians as having been a key influence on Trump regarding the decision, and appears to have made little effort to repair the damage.
Trump, with Pence behind him, announces that the US recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
At the time of writing, Palestinian officials insisted, there were no contacts with Washington regarding a visit to the city.
The cancelled schedule for Pence’s trip to Bethlehem, described in detail to the Guardian, now stands as a cautionary metaphor for the diplomatic shambles unleashed by Trump’s announcement.
Pence had hoped to draw attention to a key area of concern for the evangelicals who supported the Trump presidency – the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
The draft schedule had envisaged that the vice-president – himself a committed evangelical – would arrive first in Bethlehem at the compound of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, either by helicopter or by car for an official reception.
Then Pence would travel the few miles to the West Bank city’s historic Manger Square, from where Christmas festivities are broadcast live around the globe every year.
It would have been closed to tourists during Pence’s visit, and he would have been greeted by the spiritual heads of the different Christian traditions that administer it as he made his own private tour.
“There was a plan A and a plan B,” one source told the Guardian, “but what was being discussed was a visit to the church.”
After Trump’s announcement, the official schedule for Pence’s visit to Egypt and the Holy Land now looks a decidedly one-sided affair.
He will meet the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, but not the Coptic pope, who cancelled following the Jerusalem announcement.
There are meetings with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and president, Reuven Rivlin, but not with Abbas.
Visits to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem and to the Western Wall are planned, but no Christian sites are listed.
Instead, say informed sources, some local Christian leaders have been invited to an official reception at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, although as of Friday it was not clear if any would attend, amid pressure from Palestinian political leaders to maintain the boycott of Pence’s visit.
First to cancel his invitation was Abbas. “There will be no meeting with the vice-president of America in Palestine,” Abbas’s diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khaldi explained bluntly after Trump’s speech on 7 December.
A day later Egypt’s Coptic church, whose adherents have been a frequent target of recent attacks by Egyptian Islamic militants, said it was “excusing itself from hosting” Pence.
In Jerusalem itself, the guardian of the most sacred site in Christianity – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a Muslim functionary who holds the keys said he would refuse to meet Pence if he made an official visit.
On Sunday, Christian Palestinians voiced their disapproval by protesting outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after worship.
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, said that when the trip was first announced in the autumn Palestinians were happy to welcome Pence and help arrange meetings with local Christians.
“Then on Wednesday [6 December], Pence stands behind Trump as he announced Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and then he released statements saying this is not political, or legal or even security based, but this is biblical and this is about the word of God. If you believe you know [God’s] will then it shuts the discussion,” Zomlot said.
Ironically, perhaps, Trump’s announcement – and Pence’s involvement – may have damaged the interests of evangelicals in the Holy Land.
“One of the things on the agenda for Pence’s cancelled meeting with Abbas was formal recognition of the status of some evangelical churches. Abbas was happy to discuss it,” one official told the Guardian. “Now it is not going to happen.”
On Sunday, the White House criticised the Palestinian leadership for their snub of the vice-president, accusing Palestinians of turning their backs on the possibility of dialogue.
“It’s unfortunate that the Palestinian Authority is walking away again from an opportunity to discuss the future of the region, but the administration remains undeterred in its efforts to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and our peace team remains hard at work putting together a plan,” a Pence spokesperson said in a statement.