President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas immediately accepted a surprise invitation by Pope Francis in Bethlehem on Sunday to join him at the Vatican to pray for peace.
He issued his call on the second day of his Middle East trip, in the midst of a large public Mass he celebrated in Manger Square, the site of Jesus’s birth.
“Here, at the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace. I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said.
The pope’s decision to bring the power of prayer into the diplomatic arena comes at a moment when direct negotiations have been suspended and the US-led, nine-month peace process appears to have failed.
Peres and Abbas said they welcome the initiative and appreciate the pontiff’s efforts to achieve peace.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office made no comment on the Vatican invitation.
Since his arrival in Jordan on Saturday, Pope Francis has spoken of the importance of peace at most of his public appearances, including at his welcoming ceremony in Israel, following his arrival by helicopter at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“We all know how urgent the need for peace is, not only for Israel but also for the entire region. May efforts and energies be increasingly directed to the pursuit of a just and lasting solution to the conflicts that have caused so much suffering,” he said.
In his carefully choreographed trip, the pontiff has paid respect to significant Palestinian and Israeli symbols and principles.
As the pope traveled in a motorcade through Bethlehem, he spontaneously stopped by the West Bank security barrier, which Israel built to protect itself from suicide bombers, but which Palestinians see as symbol of oppression and occupation.
He stood for a few moments with his hand on the steel gate in the barrier, and then briefly touched his forehead to the metal. The graffiti scrawled onto the gate framed his white-clad body. Below him were big red words that read, “Free Palestine.” Above him was the phrase, “Pope, we need someone to speak about justice.”
On Monday, the pope is set to visit places of national and religious importance to Israel.
He is to place a note in the Western Wall and tour Yad Vashem. He will also become the first pope to lay a wreath at the tomb of the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. Although the act is a new part of state protocol, the pope’s gesture is still interpreted as a sign of recognition that Israel is a Jewish state.
At Ben-Gurion Airport, where he was welcomed by Peres, Netanyahu, government ministers, and spiritual leaders, Pope Francis was careful to speak of values important to both Israelis and Palestinians as he laid out his vision for a two-state solution.
The pontiff explained that Israel has a right to exist and to be recognized internationally, while the Palestinians have a right to a sovereign homeland.
“I renew the call of Benedict XVI in this place: the right of existence for the State of Israel to be recognized universally, the right to live in peace and security in recognized borders [needs to be acknowledged] by the international community,” he said.
“At the same time, the rights of the Palestinians to a sovereign homeland, to life with dignity and freedom of movement, should be recognized.
We hope that the two-state solution will become reality and will not remain a dream,” he added.
He spoke of the importance of the Holy Land to the three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and to their adherents. In a possible rebuke to Israel over the spate of vandalism attacks against several Christian sites in recent months, Francis spoke out against intolerance in the region.
“This land is a spiritual reference point for a huge portion of humanity. It is my sincere hope that there will be no place in this land for someone who exploits of distorts the religious adherence and becomes intolerant and violent towards the other,” the pontiff said.
Jerusalem is understood to be a city of peace, but is still troubled by hostility, he said, speaking of the urgency of the need for peace in Israel and the wider region.
“In unity with all those of good will, I urge everyone who bears responsibility not to stop for a moment in the search for fair solutions to the complicated problems in order that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace,” Pope Francis said.
“We must always go out in courage and without tiredness to the path of dialogue peace and reconciliation. There is no other way,” he continued.
The pontiff went on to condemn the Holocaust as a symbol of the “depths to which man’s evil can reach,” and said that it was brought about by “a false ideology that forgot the basic dignity of all men, who are entitled to complete respect, without connection to their national origins or religious faith.”
Additionally, Pope Francis rebuked the attack on Saturday at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, in which four people were killed, including two Israelis, and called the attack a “criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred.”
He extended greetings to Israel’s Christian community in Nazareth and the Galilee and said that the brevity of his visit made it impossible for him to visit them.
Netanyahu told the pontiff, “Your visit is an important chapter in the history of the relations between Christians and Jews, a bond which has lasted for 2,000 years.”
In a region where Christians are often persecuted, Netanyahu said, Israel is an island of tolerance.
“We guarantee freedom of worship for all and we are committed to maintaining the status quo at the Holy sites of Christians, Muslims, and Jews,” he said.
The good relations between the Holy See and the Jewish people, as well as the Jewish state that has been built in this generation, is welcomed, Netanyahu said.
“We admire and appreciate your decision to lay a wreath on the grave of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement.
We know that when you light the eternal flame at Yad Vashem in memory of the onethird of our people who were murdered in the Holocaust, it will be another expression of your belief that anti-Semitism is a crime against God and against humanity, as was the heinous anti-Semitic crime perpetrated yesterday on European soil,” said Netanyahu.
President Shimon Peres, who according to protocol is hosting the pope during his visit to Israel, welcomed him joyfully on arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport “on behalf of the Jewish people and in the name of all the citizens of Israel.”
Peres emphasized that Israel is a Jewish, democratic, and pluralistic state, where freedom of religion is respected and peaceful coexistence is implemented.
It is a state that seeks peace within its borders and continues to seek peace with its neighbors, even if that peace calls for sacrifices, he said, declaring that “the sacrifices of peace are preferable to the threats of war.”
He assured the pontiff that Israel’s hand would continue to be stretched out in peace.
Referring to the pope’s personal characteristics, Peres said: “You have brought to the Holy See a noble and natural humility, deep identification with the poor, the oppressed, and destitute; a profound sense that the task of man is to mend the world and engage in scientific activities for which the sanctity of life are their supreme value.”
The president voiced his appreciation to the pope for his “sensitive and resolute stand” against all expressions of anti-Semitism and hailed him as a builder of bridges between all religions and cultures.
“The nation of Israel is thrilled by your arrival,” he said.
Pope Francis is to meet separately with Peres and Netanyahu on Monday. The prime minister plans to give the pope an original antique print from 1698 depicting of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as a present.