VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis yesterday hosted an unprecedented peace prayer meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in a symbolic gesture to foster dialogue but unlikely to have any immediate effect.
Pope told Israeli and Palestinian leaders they “must respond” to their people’s yearning for peace “undaunted in dialogue” during an unprecedented prayer meeting among Jews, Christians and Muslims at the Vatican.
The pope made his vibrant appeal to Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas at the end of a two-hour evening service in the Vatican gardens, an encounter he hopes will relaunch the Middle East peace process.
“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities,” he said.
The pope spoke after Jewish rabbis, Christian cardinals and Muslim Imams read and chanted from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran in Italian, English, Hebrew and Arabic in the first such inter-religious event in the Vatican.
Tensions are running high between the two sides following the formation of a new Palestinian unity government backed by the Islamist group Hamas and the announcement of Israeli plans for building 3,200 new settler homes.
The Vatican is realistic about the effects of the ceremony.
“Nobody is fooling themselves that peace will break out in the Holy Land,” said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Middle East who is organising the historic event in the Vatican Gardens. “But this time to stop and breathe has been absent for some time,” he said, after Francis made the offer to Peres and Abbas on a visit to the Middle East last month.
“The pope wants to look beyond, upwards,” Pizzaballa said, adding: “Not everything is decided by politics.”
Francis himself has been realistic about the prospects of his initiative, saying it would be “crazy” to expect any Vatican mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but adding that just praying together might help in some way.
In a tweet from the pope’s @pontifex account on Saturday, Francis said: “Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world.”
The Vatican has defined the meeting as an “invocation for peace” but has stressed it will not be an “inter-religious prayer”, which would pose problems for the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities taking part.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud, two friends of Francis’s from Buenos Aires who went with him on his trip to the Middle East also attended.
It was the first public meeting between the two presidents
in more than a year and took place more than a month after
United States-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter mutual recrimination.