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President Nelson cancels visits to local sites, leaves Jerusalem as tensions rise in Middle East

Editor's note: Deseret News and Church News writers are chronicling the ministry of LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson as he and other church officials travel to Europe, Africa and Asia during the next two weeks. Sarah Jane Weaver reports today from Jerusalem.

JERUSALEM, Israel — Hours after the United States Armed Forces ordered a strike on Syria, President Russell M. Nelson cut short his stay in Jerusalem, leaving the central location of his global ministry tour following conference sessions at the BYU Jerusalem Center.

At a time of rising tensions, the message of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is more important than ever, he said Saturday morning from the Holy City.

Global Ministry Tour

Follow the Deseret News as we chronicle President Russell M. Nelson's travels through seven countries around the world.“The message of the Lord Jesus Christ is a message of hope, it is a message of love, it is a message of joy,” said President Nelson. “It is underlined in this time of a little heightened tension.”The United States, together with British and French allies, launched airstrikes Friday night against Syrian military targets in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad near Damascus a week earlier that killed more than 40 people. Damascus is only 135 miles from Jerusalem.

Amid the tensions in the region and rapidly diminishing available airspace, President Nelson — accompanied by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland — left Jerusalem with plans to commence the Africa portion of their tour sooner than expected.

Students at the church’s BYU Jerusalem Center will remain in Jerusalem in the eight-level building set on five acres on Mount Scopus, overlooking the Mount of Olives and the Old City.

Elder Holland, who first visited Jerusalem in 1972 and has returned so many times since that Jerusalem "now feels like home," said the church would never put President Nelson, those traveling with him or students at the BYU Jerusalem Center at risk.

“We face this week what we have faced many, many times here, some difficulty in the region,” said Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “We are always very, very conservative. We are very safe.”

President Nelson and Elder Holland offered messages of hope from the grounds of the BYU Jerusalem Center. Elder Holland said President Nelson "decisively and instantly" determined that his first major gesture beyond LDS Church headquarters would be a visit to Jerusalem.

"He wanted to walk where the Savior walked and stand where prophets have stood and feel what we all feel here," said Elder Holland. "The rich powerful influence of this land is palpable. I think he wanted that personally, as well as for the church."

President Nelson said he had symbolic reasons for planning the global trip as he did.

"We wanted to start in Jerusalem to fortify ourselves with the message of the Lord Jesus Christ right from its very inception, here where he was born, where he lived, where he ministered and where he was crucified," President Nelson said. "His message is for all of God’s children."

His original itinerary had included visiting the Western Wall, the Garden Tomb and the Sea of Galilee. More than 300 BYU Jerusalem Center students and members of the Jerusalem District attended meetings in the center — instead of the Sea of Galilee. President Nelson and Elder Holland addressed a priesthood session, while Sister Nelson and Sister Holland spoke during a women's meeting.

"Today will be building blocks on your faith," Elder Holland promised the congregation gathered for the general session. "We are not on the Sea of Galilee, you can picture yourself there if you want."

But, he added, the location does not diminish the event. "I suspect none of us in this room can understand the significance of this day .... But we will," said Elder Holland.

Mariette Zaionce of Tel Aviv said she attends a branch so diverse that it is not uncommon to see testimonies translated and then translated again to reach a common language.

"Living in Israel is tough," she said. "You are always on your toes."

Zaionce said she will now draw strength from President Nelson's testimony of the Savior and visit.

John Rey Bautista of Tel Aviv added, "It is a great privilege to be here in Israel and see the living prophet speak to us."

President Nelson told the members that words cannot express his gratitude to be in Jerusalem and "feel of your faith. It is a special joy for us."

"You don’t have to come to a scene, a setting, to appreciate the Savior, or the prophets or the events, you could do that in the privacy of a missionary apartment in South America or Asia or you could do it in a primary class in Eastern Europe," said Elder Holland. "But to add to that the privilege of being in the land that [the Savior] loved and on the soil that he walked, it really is a magnificent personal experience and I will never grow tired of that."

Because of the significance of its history, Jerusalem — located in the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia — became a central stop on President Nelson’s ministering tour. He will now continue his global ministry tour, stopping in Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Thailand, Hong Kong and Hawaii.

"The message is the same wherever I go," said President Nelson. "We invite all of God's children to come unto their Savior and receive his blessings that are available in the holy temple and have enduring joy and qualify for eternal life with their Father in Heaven."