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Charles walks through Bethlehem with Muslim and Christian leaders

Victoria Jones/PA Wire

By Tony Jones, PA Court Correspondent

The Prince of Wales began his historic first visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories with a symbolic gesture of unity - walking through Bethlehem with Muslim and Christian leaders.

As heavy showers fell the group of religious figures joined by Charles sheltered under umbrellas as they made their way across Manger Square.

The huge bustling crowd of security men, religious clerics, press and the royal entourage - with the prince just about visible - walked from the Mosque of Omar to the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Jesus is said to have been born.

His first engagement on Palestinian land was to visit the mosque on Manger Square, where he heard how Christians and Muslims had lived peacefully alongside each other in Bethlehem for centuries.

The Omar mosque is named after the Caliph Omar, who conquered Jerusalem in 637 but guaranteed that Christians would be free to continue to worship.

His promise was laid out in the Assurance of Omar, a copy of which was given to the prince.

The governor of Bethlehem Kamel Hmeid told Charles how followers of the two religions lived a peaceful coexistence in the historic town, and recounted the story of how Omar was invited to pray inside the Church of the Nativity.

He refused, saying that if he did it would become a mosque. Instead he prayed outside.

The message of religious co-existence was, said Charles, "a wonderful example".

The governor said afterwards: "The strongest message from Bethlehem is that we are proud as Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, to live here together.

"We send this message all round the world, that in the Holy Land we can live a normal life, with love between Muslims and Christians. The people live together - working, learning, eating, doing everything together.

"We want to live in peace. We want to live in an independent democratic state with Jerusalem as the capital."

He said the prince was "very interested" in every detail of the mosque, "he asked about the poor people, how we can help them".

After signing the visitors' book - in English, then in Arabic - Charles crossed the square to the Church of the Nativity accompanied by imams from the Omar mosque and Christians from the church - Franciscans, Armenian and Greek Orthodox.