Notwithstanding the barrage of criticism he encountered on Sunday after telling heads of Israel’s diplomatic missions abroad that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is a leader with whom Israel can reach a peace agreement, President Shimon Peres on Monday persisted with his call for peace when addressing spiritual and lay leaders of Israel’s Christian communities.He spoke at the annual Christmas/New Year reception that he hosts in their honor. This time, he refrained from mentioning Abbas, but spoke instead of Hamas, saying that people ask why Israel won’t talk to its officials.There’s nothing wrong with talking to Hamas, Peres clarified, but Hamas won’t talk to Israel.Israel would be willing to talk to Hamas, if Hamas complied with the three conditions set down by the Mideast Quartet, namely renunciation of terrorism, recognition of Israel and willingness to negotiate with Israel, he said.“They have to decide if they want peace or war,” said Peres, underscoring that Hamas cannot continue to fire rockets into Israel without retaliation on Israel’s part. “If they shoot, we shoot,” he said.Alluding to last month’s Operation Pillar of Defense aerial war with the Gaza strip, Peres noted the propensity of critics of Israel to compare the number of victims on both sides. It would be preferable if there were no victims on either side, he said.As for the PA, Peres noted that it has security forces established with Israel’s approval, and is building up its economy with Israel’s help.The effort to make peace with the Palestinians must be continued, he said. “It’s not a matter of politics, but a matter of principle.”He said that the agreement signed between Israel and the PLO remains intact.At the outset of his address, Peres expressed satisfaction with the increasingly good relations between Christians and Jews that he said were the best that they have been for 2,000 years.He also spoke of his respect for Pope Benedict XVI, and his appreciation for the emphasis on peace and hope that the pope had placed in his Christmas message.“If one thing clearly unites all of us it is the prayer and hope for peace,” said Peres.“We all have our own ways of worship, but peace is the unifying factor.”Peres said that he would like to see an end to bloodshed and suffering, not only in the Middle East but in the whole world. “Differences are not a reason for violence,” he said.“We were born equal even if we were not born the same, and no one has the right to downgrade or discriminate against anyone else.”Peace can be attained in the Middle East, the president declared, “but we have to act with determination, courage and honesty to achieve it.”Greek Patriarch Theophilos III, speaking on behalf of representatives of all branches of the Christian faith, said that “the Christian presence is part and parcel of the history of this region, and the ongoing life of the Churches ensures the sacred uniqueness of Jerusalem and the religious character of the Holy Land as a whole.”New realities are emerging from the unpredictable political and socioeconomic developments in the region that morally obligate those in the Holy Land to present to the rest of the region a path that leads to genuine freedom of religion, interreligious engagement and mutual respect, Theophilos said.The shared history of people of different faiths working together “has taught us that the road to peace is a dynamic process that is not through violence but through dialogue. It is dialogue that builds trust and mutual acceptance, and that shows us the way forward,” he said.Though Christians fare much better in Israel than in other countries of the region, there are extremist elements in Israel that desecrate Christian holy sites and hurl expletives at Christian priests and nuns.Though gentle and diplomatic in his complaint, Theophilos could not hide Christian concerns at the attitude of certain groups that take the law into their own hands for the sole purpose of causing confusion and disturbing harmonious coexistence.He commended Peres for the courageous position he had taken against “the sacrilegious acts that have been directed against the sacred gift of freedom of worship that we enjoy in our Holy Land.”Addressing himself directly to Peres, Theophilos said: “Your actions and stance in condemning strongly all forms of bigotry and prejudice against places of worship be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim, is a clear example for all leaders to follow.”Peres praised the interfaith work that is being done in the effort to bring about peace.