Israeli, Palestinian presidents meet during unprecedented Vatican prayers

Israeli and Palestinian presidents meet in an unprecedented prayer meeting with Pope Francis on Sunday, a gesture he hopes will ‘re-create a desire, a possibility’ of relaunching the Middle East’s stalled peace process.

The Vatican has played down any expectations that the Sunday evening meeting between Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas - billed as a ‘pause from politics’ - will lead to any immediate breakthroughs in 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 get involved in details of issues such as borders or settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the key Israeli decision-maker, is not attending and he refuses to deal with the Palestinian unity government, backed by Hamas Islamists, that Abbas swore in last Monday. Peres will leave office next month. Netanyahu has made no direct comment on the meeting but in remarks on Sunday at a paramilitary police base in Jerusalem he suggested that prayer is no substitute for security.

‘For thousands of years, the people of Israel have been praying for peace daily. But until peace comes, we will continue to strengthen you so that you can continue to defend the State of Israel. Ultimately, that is what will guarantee our future and will also bring peace,’ he told the troops.

But the fact that Francis’ bold move has managed to bring the two presidents together shows his desire to engage political leaders, offering inter-religious dialogue as a building block.

The meeting is taking place more than a month after U.S.-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter mutual recrimination. The pope, in his weekly Sunday address in St. Peter’s Square, said he hoped faithful of all religions ‘will unite themselves spiritually to our plea’.

The pope made his surprise invitation to the two heads of state while he was in the Holy Land last month.
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