Pope invites Israeli and Palestinian leaders to Vatican

Francis makes offer in off-script remarks in Bethlehem and Tel Aviv

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Mheisen Amareen

Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Mheisen Amareen

Mon, May 26, 2014, 01:00

On the second day of his visit to Israel and Palestine, Pope Francis brought the full weight of his moral authority to bear on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he invited both Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to join him in prayer in the Vatican.

The pope made his offer in off-script remarks both in Bethlehem, Palestine and in Tel Aviv, Israel, each time saying: “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.

“Building peace is difficult but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace . . .”

No date has been set for the three-way encounter but, given that the mandate of Mr Peres runs out at the end of July, there is every likelihood that the joint prayer session will take place shortly.

There must also be the real expectation that these “prayers” represent a very “political” moment when the two leaders will resume talks, giving a badly needed boost to the stalled Israel-Palestine peace negotiations.

The appeal to both presidents was the second surprise sprung by Pope Francis on a day when his “pilgrimage” assumed seriously political connotations.

Yesterday morning, during a visit to Bethlehem, the pope made an unscheduled and very symbolic stop, alighting from his popemobile to say a prayer at the Israeli-built dividing wall between Bethlehem and Israel, right in front of graffiti which read: “Pope, we need someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem looks like the Warsaw ghetto.”

Earlier yesterday morning the pope issued a strong appeal in which he denounced the “increasingly unacceptable” situation of protracted conflict in the Middle East, urging a peace agreement which acknowledges “the right of two states to exist and to live in peace . . . within internationally recognised borders.”

Welcoming Pope Francis to Bethlehem, Mr Abbas thanked him not only for coming to the town but also for agreeing to meet and break bread later with some Palestinian families as well as visit the Palestinian refugee camp of Dheisheh.

In his homily during Mass in Manger Square,by the Church of the Nativity, the pope also bemoaned the fate of children worldwide, caught up in violence, trafficking and all kinds of exploitation while he affirmed the rights of the “active” Christian community in the Middle East.

Even as that papal Mass was ending, however, there were audible signs of the inter-religious nature of this special land when the Adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, blasted out over a loudspeaker system beside Manger Square, clashing with the final prayers offered by the pope.

Yesterday evening, the pope arrived in Jerusalem where the arrest of 26 ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against his presence further underlined the complicated and polemical views that beset this region.