VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis may be wading into his most entrenched and troubled arena yet when he hosts President Shimon Peres and PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday at the Vatican in what papal officials are calling a “joint prayer for peace.”

Since becoming pope in March 2013, Francis has not shied away from tackling prickly issues, including the church’s history of sexual abuse, the Vatican’s powerful and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy, as well as breaking with long-held church traditions on relations with other faiths, homosexuality and divorce.

But by many measures, those issues pale in comparison to the complexity of the long history of hostility between the Israeli and Palestinian populations.

For its part, the Vatican stressed Sunday’s encounter is strictly spiritual rather than political or diplomatic. That’s a point the pontiff himself made when he issued his invitation to Peres and Abbas during a three-day trip to the region last week, when he said, “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”

But that in no way implies it has a symbolic nature, according to expert Vatican watchers.

“This is a pope who truly believes in the power of prayer, who believes it can help solve even the most intractable problems,” said Andrea Tornielli, who covers the Vatican for the Italian daily La Stampa.

Tornielli and other Vatican experts pointed to Francis’s day of prayer for Syria eight months ago as a significant precursor to Sunday’s initiative.

That day, the pontiff was joined in prayer by tens of thousands of faithful gathered in Saint Peter’s Square – but not by representatives of the parties involved in the troubled region, as will be the case Sunday.

“This definitely builds on what took place last September,” said Marco Ansaldo, a La Repubblica Vatican expert.

Ansaldo said the Vatican hopes the spiritual context of Sunday’s encounter will lead to diplomatic action later on, saying “the spiritual can evolve into a diplomatic initiative.”

On his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the pope was careful not to take sides, and included symbolic gestures throughout his visit designed to please both sides.

He said Israel and the Palestinians had to “make sacrifices” in order to achieve peace, and explicitly called for a two-state solution. The pontiff’s invitation to Peres and Abbas to come to the Vatican – which was made from Bethlehem – had not been revealed beforehand, but both sides were still quick to accept it.

“It’s obvious all sides want peace, though the terms each would like vary dramatically,” said London- based Alistair Sear, a retired priest and religious historian. “Perhaps being joined in prayer will be an important step toward diminishing the gap between what each side demands and what the other will agree to.”


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