VATICAN CITY – Former president Shimon Peres emerged from a Vatican City audience with Pope Francis Thursday after proposing a kind of United Nations for religions.
Peres, 91, who was the world’s oldest head of state until his term ended six weeks ago, met with Francis amid heightened tensions in the Middle East.
He used the talks to highlight human rights abuses from Hamas and to discuss the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
But the main topic of conversation was Peres’s idea to create a UN-like organization he called “the United Religions.”
Peres said the Argentina-born pontiff was the only world figure respected enough to bring an end to the wars raging in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
“In the past, most of the wars in the world were motivated by the idea of nationhood,” Peres said. “But today, wars are incited using religion as an excuse.”
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi confirmed to reporters that Peres had pitched his idea for “the United Religions” but said Francis did not commit to it.
“The pope listened, showing his interest, attention, and encouragement,” Lombardi said, adding that the pope pointed to the Pontifical Councils for Interreligious Dialogue and for Justice and Peace as existing agencies “suitable” for supporting interfaith peace initiatives.
The summit between Peres and Francis is the third high-profile meeting between the leaders in little more than four months. They met for the first time in late May, when Francis became the fourth pope to visit the Holy Land in the modern era. On that trip, Francis invited Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a prayer meeting in June, which they both attended.
Since then, however, tensions in the Middle East have risen amid increased bloodshed in Gaza and in Syria. Lombardi said the 45-minute conversation between the two men – a longer-than-average meeting for the pontiff – did not touch upon “current political issue in any real depth,” instead focusing on Peres’s idea for the United Religions.
Lombardi said Francis praised Peres as a “man of peace,” and said the unusually long meeting was a reflection of the pope’s “deep esteem and appreciation” for the former Israeli leader.
Peres was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for peace 20 years ago, along with then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But Peres praised Francis as the only world figure respected across national boundaries and different faiths.
In an interview with the Catholic Magazine Famiglia Cristiana, Peres called on Francis to leverage his respect to create an interfaith organization to curb religious violence.
“What we need is an organization of United Religions... as the best way to combat terrorists who kill in the name of faith,” Peres said. “What we need is an unquestionable moral authority who says out loud, ‘No, God does not want this and does not allow it.’” After meeting with Peres, Francis held a 30-minute closeddoor meeting with Jordanian Prince El-Hassan bin Talal, who sponsors the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies to promote religious dialogue. Lombardi said that meeting dovetailed into the day’s topic of interfaith cooperation and peace.
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