CAPERNAUM, Israel – President Bush speaks freely about the importance of religion in his life. He also has made it clear that he does not favor playing the tourist.
On Friday, the spiritual side won out.
After two days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Bush focused on the horrors of the past – as well as the joy delivered by his religion, brought to life during a walk through remnants of its earliest days.
On an emotional five-hour excursion, the president visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Then, walking where Jesus is said to have tended his ministry, he stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, nearly within sight of Lebanon and Syria.
As the day flowed, his countenance lifted from grim and teary to a cheery demeanor that brought giggling from a group of nuns.
“An amazing experience,” said the president, of his walk atop Mount Eremos, where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
After his visit to the Holocaust memorial, he expressed himself in much the same language he uses when he talks about Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
“I would hope as many people in the world would come to this place. It would be a sobering reminder that evil exists and a call that when we find evil, we must resist,” he said.
Bush walked through several chambers at Yad Vashem, among them a memorial to the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust and the Hall of Names, a conical room that evokes the interior of a smokestack, its walls covered with snapshots and formal photographs of 600 victims.
In the Hall of Remembrance, two Marines carried a wreath of red-and-cream Gerber daisies to a stone slab covering victims’ ashes taken from six camps. The president, wearing a yarmulke, bent to adjust it on the stone.
Later, the memorial’s chairman, Avner Shalev, said that the president’s eyes grew moist twice during the tour, and that Bush asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice why the United States had not bombed Auschwitz to stop the slaughter.
Rice, who accompanied him on the tour, told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to Kuwait to continue his eight-day tour of the Middle East and Persian Gulf, that she and the president talked about various explanations for not targeting the train tracks that had led to Auschwitz.
At the Sea of Galilee, Bush walked onto a pier accompanied by two Franciscan friars and pointed south over the waters on which, according to the Biblical account, Jesus walked.