President Shimon Peres and Pope Francis strengthened their mutual bonds of peace on Monday when at the tail end of his address, the president publicly accepted the pope’s invitation to come to the Vatican and join him in a prayer for peace.
A final date has not yet been set, but according to sources in the president’s office, it will be on either June 5 or 6 – an interesting choice in that these are common era dates on which the Six Day War was fought.
Peres met the pope on the red carpet outside the President’s Residence and the two embraced warmly. A clutch of Catholic guests who had managed to invade the enclosure reserved for media began waving papal flags and shouting the pope’s name.
The pope was greeted by three children all dressed in white: Mira Bachar, 12, from Ra’anana, speaking in Italian; Maya Khouri, 11, from Jaffa, speaking in Arabic; and Itai Mizrahi, 8, speaking in Hebrew. The little boy lost his father in a terrorist attack this year on the first night of Passover.
Peres and the pope then went to meet seriously ill and disabled Christian children who were invited under the auspices of the Make a Wish Foundation. After the two leaders had a working meeting, Peres handed over a file of all Israeli soldiers missing in action, and asked the pope to use all the resources at his disposal to bring them home, whether alive or dead.
The two then went out into the Garden of Peace, where the sapling of an olive tree had already been planted, but needed additional soil to ensure that it was firmly rooted in the ground. Two shovels were ready for the pope and the president to complete the job.
A plaque in Hebrew, English and Arabic alongside the tree contains a verse from Psalms 107: “He turned the desert into pools of water… and they founded a city where they could settle. They sowed fields and planted vineyards that yielded a fruit harvest. He blessed them and their numbers greatly increased.”
An added inscription in Hebrew reads: “This tree was planted by the President of Israel Shimon Peres and His Holiness Pope Francis on Iyar 26, 5774, May 26, 2014.”
While waiting for the pope and Peres to come out for the formal ceremony, many of the hundreds of invitees were waving papal flags, not so much out of enthusiasm for the occasion as in an effort to overcome the humidity and the heat which had been exacerbated by a tent-like structure over the seating area.
When the two leaders approached the stage for the formal ceremony to which hundreds of dignitaries and children had been invited, there was a frenzy of papal flag waving and cheers, applause and elated shouts of the pope’s name.
Peres, in his address of welcome, characterized Jerusalem as a city that radiates faith but also understands torment.
The values that Pope Francis holds dear “enrich us and forge justice between people,” he said. “The moral call remains the wisest human judgment and has no substitute.”
The pope’s visit, Peres continued, “is a moving event with the power to motivate religious leaders into joining forces to enable moral ethics and scientific innovations that will enable each person to free themselves from despair, poverty and violence.”
Declaring the world to be horrified by violence and the shedding of blood of innocent children who have not yet tasted the flavor of life, Peres was highly critical of terrorists who plant the seeds of evil and take religion in vain without pity in their hearts and spread destruction, killing indiscriminately and without logic.
“We must stand together to curb this menace on the lives of people and world peace”, he said.
There were many spiritual leaders in the audience, and Peres appealed to them and to spiritual leaders worldwide to make their voices heard with a clear, unequivocal message that the world will not surrender to terror.
Turning to the pope he said, “I know you stand rock firm against any attempt to connect religion to terror, and that you aspire to create a common ground for global, regional, and individual peace. We are with you heart and soul in the effort to build a dam and to thwart murder and replace it with peace.”
Peres underscored the importance of meetings between religious authorities and the world of politics, which he said could serve to highlight the spiritual, moral and common foundations that connect them and enable the compromises needed to achieve peace.
Peres was confident that the pope’s visit and call for peace would echo so positively throughout the region that it would contribute significantly to revitalizing attempts to complete the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians based on a Jewish state and an Arab state living side by side in peace. This could be achieved by mutual agreement through negotiations, he said, adding that he believed that all the citizens of the region want peace.
Describing Peres as “a man of peace and a peacemaker,” Francis said that he was happy to meet him again.
The pope also emphasized the character of Jerusalem as a city holy to the three great faiths of the God of Abraham, and said that its sacred character must be preserved not only as a legacy of the past but as a symbol for the future for all those who would want to visit its holy places.
The sanctity and the religious and cultural significance of Jerusalem should serve as a symbol for all mankind, he said.
Francis voiced appreciation and admiration for the approach taken by Peres with regard to freedom of speech and the freedom of every person, as well as to his attitude towards resolving problems through negotiation rather than confrontation. “We must pursue peaceful solutions to every controversy and conflict,” he said, and suggested that anything that contradicted a true and peaceful solution should be avoided.
The pope spoke out against all forms of anti-Semitism and racism and declared that peace between Christians, Muslims and Jews must be cultivated.
He also put in a diplomatic plea for Israel’s variety of Christian communities whose members, he said, want to contribute to the common good as full-fledged citizens, and are committed to peace, reconciliation and harmony.”
He said that his prayers for the institutions and citizens of Israel are for their attainment of peace, security, tranquility, prosperity and fraternity – “above all, fraternity.”
To all those affected by the continuing crisis in the Middle East, the pope voiced the hope that their pain would soon be alleviated by an honorable conclusion of hostilities.
A mixed-faith choir accompanied by soloists David D’Or and Miri Mesika singing in Hebrew and Italian sang songs of peace to the obvious delight of the president and the pontiff.