Pope to pray with Israeli and Palestinian presidents

Francis, Peres and Abbas will shake hands during ceremony as a ‘gesture of peace’

Pope Francis waves at the end of a special audience for Carabinieri paramilitary police in Saint Peter’s Square yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Pope Francis waves at the end of a special audience for Carabinieri paramilitary police in Saint Peter’s Square yesterday. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 16:29

In an initiative that looks much more political than spiritual, Pope Francis tomorrow will hold an unprecedented joint prayer service in the Vatican with the outgoing president of Israel, Shimon Peres and with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

This highly unusual event follows on from invitations issued to both leaders by Pope Francis during his historic visit to the Holy Land last week.

Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the custodian of the Holy Land and one of the main “logistical” organisers, insisted in a news conference yesterday that this event represents a “break” from politics, a moment when the two nations would pray for peace. Yet, in the context of the Middle East, a three way – Jewish, Christian, Muslim – prayer of peace is clearly highly political. Father Pizzballa acknowledged as much, when saying:

“No one who knows the situation in the Middle East would have the presumption to imagine that on Monday morning, peace will break out...The intent is to re-open a road that has been shut for some while, to recreate the conditions, to allow people to dream again...

“Expectations are very high and that suggests to me that many people hope that something will finally change. People are simply tired of these never ending negotiations...This event is intended to take the whole question out of the political realm, to involve the peoples not the politicians...and to invoke peace....

“This is not a liturgical event but rather...an invocation to prayer. People will not be praying together, (saying the same prayer) rather they will be together to pray...to invoke peace.”

Due to be held on a lawn inside the Vatican grounds, close to both the Vatican Museums and to the Academy of Sciences, the ceremony will comprise three “moments” of prayer - first Jewish, then Christian and then Islamic - accompanied by music. Throughout the service, the Pope will sit between the two Presidents whilst at the end of the ceremony he and the two Presidents will shake hands as “a gesture of peace”.

Following that, the Pope and his two guests will plant an olive tree as “an enduring symbol of the mutual desire for peace of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples”. During the ceremony, neither the Pope nor the two Presidents will lead the prayers but all three men are expected to make “an invocation for peace” at the end of the service.

Whilst the prayer service clearly represents an important “spiritual” moment, there may be time for some political “hardtalk” afterwards when, along with the Pope, both leaders withdraw to the nearby Pontifical Academy of Sciences for a private meeting.

Also attending tomorrow’s prayer service will be the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, who in an interview today with Italian daily, La Repubblica, said:

“We have a common hope here and that is that we achieve two results – (a) that God hears us and (b) that (the prayers) send a signal to both Europe and Asia that with God’s help, we can arrive at concrete results”