VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday prayed together, embraced and planted an olive tree as a symbol of the desire for peace.
Francis invited Peres and Abbas to the Vatican last month, during a three-day trip through the Holy Land, for what was repeatedly termed a spiritual rather than diplomatic gathering.
As Sunday approached, the Vatican worked hard to downplay expectations that the encounter might lead to a quick breakthrough in talks between Israel and the PA, and indeed, none was forthcoming.
Though the meeting was cordial, it was also very formal and the remarks from Peres and Abbas – though conciliatory – were devoid of signals that compromise might be in the air.
Pope Francis told the Israeli and Palestinian leaders they "must respond" to their people's yearning for peace "undaunted in dialogue".
The pope made his vibrant appeal to Peres and Abbas at the end of two-hour evening service in the Vatican gardens, an encounter he hopes will re-launch the Middle East peace process.
"Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities," he said as Peres and Abbas listened intently and read along with translations.
"All of this takes courage, it takes strength and tenacity," the pope added.
“We must put an end to the cries, to the violence, to the conflict,” Peres said near the end of the encounter. “We all need peace... peace between equals.”
Abbas followed suit a short time later: “We want peace for us and for our neighbors,” he said.
The symbolic meeting took place in the Vatican Gardens, with the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica towering behind the setting. The three leaders, accompanied by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, arrived – as has become normal for Francis – in a nondescript white van, where they exited together and walked in step to their seats.
The pope sat in the center of three chairs with Peres to his right and Abbas on his left. A nine-piece classical ensemble – made up of three Jews, three Christians, and three Muslims – played to welcome the leaders.
From that point the ceremony took turns reciting prayers, with each faith given its turn in order of chronology: the Jewish prayers, followed by the Christian recitations, and the Muslim prayers.
Around 80 religious leaders were on hand along with several dozen reporters, amid tight security.
It was the first time leaders of Israel and the PA met publicly in more than a year, and aides to both said the meeting was facilitated by the use of the Vatican as a neutral setting.
Afterward, Vatican officials expressed hope the good will from Sunday’s meeting could pay dividends in the coming weeks and months.
“We won’t know for a long time whether this meeting was a symbolic meeting or the start of a productive discussion,” said Alistair Sear, a priest and retired church historian. “To judge what happened [Sunday] we have to know what happens next.”