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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper take a tour of the future site of the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre in Hula valley, Israel on Wednesday, January 22, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Laureen Harper take a tour of the future site of the Stephen J. Harper Hula Valley Bird Sanctuary Visitor and Education Centre in Hula valley, Israel on Wednesday, January 22, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Harper tours holy sites in Israel, visits bird sanctuary named after him Add to ...

He is not known for taking time out of foreign trips to see the sights, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent his morning touring bibilical sites in northern Israel.

After three days of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, speeches and solemn events, Mr. Harper spent most of the day in more touristic pursuits. In the afternoon, he even did some birdwatching, peering through binoculars at thousands of cranes at the bird sanctuary soon to bear his name. He even got a laugh when a vehicle carrying photographers and journalists got stuck in the mud.

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In the places where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and where his disciple Peter lived, Mr. Harper toured sites that mark biblical landmarks with his wife, Laureen, on Wednesday morning. There was no homily and no speeches. There were plenty of cameras.

He left Jerusalem in the morning aboard an Israeli Black Hawk helicopter to fly 150 kilometres along the Jordan Valley to Israel’s north, accompanied by the country’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, but his first stops were to trace holy land history.

In Capernaum, Mr. Harper visited the site of what is believed to be St. Peter’s house, where, according to the Bible, Jesus lived and taught his disciples after leaving Nazareth. Franciscan monks gave him a tour of the fourth-century Synagogue of Capernaum, before taking a brief walk on the palm-lined shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mr. Harper, who has identified himself as a Christian but doesn’t talk frequently about his faith, seemed intent.

He then travelled to the Mount of Beatitudes, the site where Jesus is said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount to his followers, to tour the Church of the Beatitudes. He stepped outside to pose for pictures, and a nun who had guided them through the church enlisted a Toronto Star reporter to take a picture of her with Laureen Harper on her iPad.

It was a moment for pictures in other ways: for prime ministers, foreign trips are about projecting an image, in the country, and at home.

Mr. Harper has done that in Israel, visiting the Western Wall, where he was cheered by many of the more than 200 Canadians he brought with him, many from the Jewish community, and by Israelis. Some of it is aimed for the hosts, and the groups with him, but tightly controlled: on Tuesday night, Mr. Harper sang Hey Jude at an official dinner hosted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Canadian reporters covering Mr. Harper’s visit were not allowed in. On Wednesday, the touring of biblical sights was made for pictures, and he didn’t speak publicly for most of the day.

He did speak a few words at the dedication of a cornerstone of the planned Stephen J. Harper reception centre at the Hula bird sanctuary – a project built with funds raised by the Jewish National Fund of Canada and named for Mr. Harper to mark his staunch support of Israel.

“I do hope that although it all bears my name, you will all think of you, as Jewish Canadians whenever you come here, think of this as part of what you contributed to this country of Israel and to this relationship between Canada and Israel.”

He then mounted a birdwatching vehicle – a sort of reviewing stand mounted on a trailer and pulled by a farm tractor – and was pulled into a field packed with thousands of cawing cranes. The planned photo op had a touch of the surreal, with photographers on another trailer facing the back of Mr. Harper’s, then obstructed by a tractor dropping seed, before Mr. Harper finally wheeled into view. And then the photographers’ trailer got stuck, with the tractor caught in a rut. Mr. Harper laughed, and another tractor was called to evacuate the cameras.

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