Pope invites Israeli president and Palestinian leader to Vatican

Pope made offer in off-script remarks at the end of a mass in Bethehem

Pope Francis (3rd from left) conducts Mass beneath a large mural at Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem today. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

Pope Francis (3rd from left) conducts Mass beneath a large mural at Manger Square, outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem today. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters

Sun, May 25, 2014, 14:58

On the second day of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope Francis has produced the first real surprise of his trip by inviting both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the Vatican to pray with him.

The Pope made his offer in off-script remarks at the end of a mass he celebrated in Manger Square, Bethlehem today, inviting both leaders to join him “in heartfelt prayer”, adding: “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...”

Whilst many different media sources have already confirmed that President Peres has accepted the invitation, the response of President Abbas is not yet clear. However Vatican observers point out that such an invitation would not have been extended publicly without the Vatican first sounding out and then receiving a positive response from both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

If this unprecedented three way prayer session is to take place, it may have to be very shortly because President Peres’ term of office concludes midway through next month. There must also be the very real expectation that these joint prayers represent a very “political” moment when the two leaders will resume talks, giving a badly-needed boost to the currently stalled peace negotiations.

The Pope’s invitation to the two Presidents came on a day when he made a fervent appeal for an end to conflict in the Middle East, underlining that call by making a symbolic stop to say a prayer at the Israeli-built Dividing Wall between Bethlehem and Israel.