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Pope hosts Vatican prayer session for Middle East peace

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres meet with the spiritual leader of the world's Roman Catholics.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Israeli president Shimon Peres arrive in the Vatican Gardens to pray together at the Vatican on Sunday. Max Rossi / Reuters
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Israeli president Shimon Peres arrive in the Vatican Gardens to pray together at the Vatican on Sunday. Max Rossi / Reuters

VATICAN CITY // Pope Francis waded head-first into Middle East peace-making on Sunday, welcoming the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican for an evening of peace prayers just weeks after the last round of US-sponsored negotiations collapsed.

Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas embraced in the foyer of the Vatican hotel where Pope Francis lives, joked together and shared a minibus with Pope Francis for the quick trip across the Vatican to the garden ceremony.

There on the lawn, Pope Francis sat between the two presidents, with the Israeli and Palestinian delegations and Vatican cardinals flanking them, as a string ensemble played.

Vatican officials have insisted that Pope Francis has no political agenda by inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace between the two parties. But the meeting could have significance beyond mere symbolism.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Reverend Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

The meeting will also cement Pope Francis’ reputation as a leader unhindered by diplomatic and theological protocol who is willing to go out on a limb for the sake of peace. The enormously popular pope is the first pontiff named for the peace-loving St Francis of Assisi.

The unusual prayer summit was a feat of diplomatic and religious protocol, organised in the two weeks since Pope Francis issued the surprise invitation to Mr Peres and Mr Abbas from Manger Square in Bethlehem.

It took place in the lush Vatican gardens in the shadow of St Peter’s Basilica, the most religiously neutral place in the tiny city-state, and incorporated Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian.

The prayers focused on three themes common to each of the religions: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region.

Mr Abbas prayed for peace with Israel at the session: “O Lord, bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Mr Peres: “It is within our power to bring peace to our children. This is our duty, the holy mission of parents.”

Vatican officials have described the prayer evening as something of a “time-out” in political negotiations, merely designed to rekindle the desire for peace through prayers common to all the main faith traditions in the Holy Land.

But even Pope Francis’ secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the power of prayer shouldn’t be discounted for its ability to change reality.

“Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don’t even realise and should be exploited to the full,” he said at the end of Pope Francis’ Middle East trip. “Prayer has the ability to transform hearts and thus to transform history.”

That said, no concrete results are expected: Mr Peres has no formal role in peace negotiations, holds a largely ceremonial post and leaves office at the end of the month.

But Nadav Tamir, a political adviser to Mr Peres, said on Sunday the Israeli government authorised the trip and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in “constant contact” with Mr Peres. Speaking on Israeli Army Radio, Mr Tamir stressed the meeting was not political, even though he said Mr Peres and Mr Abbas were expected to discuss political developments when they meet in private after the prayer.

Mr Netanyahu had urged the world to shun Mr Abbas’s new unity government which took office last week because it is backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. His pleas have been ignored by the West, with both the US and the European Union saying they will give the unity government a chance.

Mr Peres’s participation thus undermines Mr Netanyahu’s attempts to isolate the Palestinians and instead adds to the growing isolation of Mr Netanyahu’s hard-line position. Mr Netanyahu’s office has declined repeated requests for comment about the Vatican summit.

Nevertheless, Mr Tamir stressed that the meeting had a different aspect to it.

“The government of Israel decided not to hold political negotiations, but we aren’t talking about political negotiations. We are talking about a different gesture, a spiritual gesture, an act of public diplomacy,” Mr Tamir said.

Mr Abbas, for his part, told Italian daily La Repubblica that Pope Francis’s invitation was “an act of great courage”.

“Nothing should stop us in the search for solutions so that both of our people can live in their own sovereign state,” he was quoted as saying in Sunday’s editions.

* Associated Press