Pope welcomes Peres, Abbas for Vatican prayers
The Israeli and Palestinian presidents began an unprecedented meeting with Pope Francis today to pray together in the hope that the gesture will relaunch the Middle East peace process.
Francis, who made the surprise invitation to Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas last month during his trip to the Holy Land, welcomed the two leaders in front of the modest guest house where he has decided to reside after renouncing the spacious papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
It was the first public meeting between the two presidents in more than a year and was taking place more than a month after United States-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter mutual recrimination.
The three, accompanied by Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the Orthodox Christians, were then driven together in a white mini-van to what the Vatican has called a "neutral" site in the Vatican gardens with no religious symbols.
They walked together, with the pope between Peres and Abbas, down a tree-lined lane to their seats on either side of the pope as a chamber orchestra played.
"We have gathered here, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims, so that each of us can express his or her desire for peace for the Holy Land and for all who dwell there," the master of ceremonies said as the service began.
She said the presidents wanted to voice "the desire of their respective peoples to invoke to God the common longing for peace".
Religious representatives of the three religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - then began prayers for peace in Italian, Hebrew, Arabic and English.
The Vatican has played down any expectations that the meeting - billed as a "pause from politics" - will lead to any immediate breakthroughs in efforts to solve the region's tortuous problems and says it is not meddling in regional issues.
"No one is presumptuous enough to think peace will break out on Monday," said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a Church official in charge of Catholic sites in the Holy Land and a key organiser of the encounter.
"The intention of this initiative is to re-open a road that has been closed for some time, to re-create a desire, a possibility, to make people dream," he said, adding that the pope does not want to be involved in details of issues such as borders or settlements."This is a moment to invoke God for the gift of peace. This is a pause in politics," said Pizzaballa. "This is also an invitation to politicians to pause and look heavenward," he told a Vatican briefing. "Everyone wants something to happen, something to change. Everyone is tried of these eternal negotiations that never end."
Francis' invitation is one of his boldest political gestures since his election March, 2013, but the Vatican has played down suggestions that the move is a bid by the pontiff to directly enter the Middle East peace process.
"The pope does not want to get into the political questions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we all know about in the smallest of details from A to Z," Pizzaballa said.
The meeting is taking place more than a month after US-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter mutual recrimination and Pizzaballa said the pope hoped the encounter could inject the leaders with a new will for peace.