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(photo credit: AP/ L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Benedict XVI has offered to use the full weight of his office to contact Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in an effort to secure the release of kidnapped IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
The pope made the offer during a meeting Thursday with President Shimon Peres, who is on a state visit to Italy, his first official trip since taking office.
Peres has not left the country in recent months, an anomaly for the usually globe-hopping octogenarian. However, judging by the number of invitations that he has received to come on state visits in his present capacity, he will be traveling overseas quite a lot in the year ahead. Beit Hanassi has already asked the government to approve a NIS 1.5 million increase to his travel budget for 2007 alone.
Peres visited with the pope at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. As he did on Wednesday with President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and again on Thursday morning with Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, Peres raised the issue of the abducted soldiers and the suffering of their families, who have had no information regarding their situation. Napolitano pledged to do his utmost to secure at least a sign of life from the captives.
Peres's meeting with the pope lasted almost an hour, which is more time than the pontiff usually gives those who seek an audience with him.
In reviewing the overall situation in the Middle East, Peres told the pope that the root of the evil could be found in Iran, which is ruled by a religious extremist leader "who worships an atom bomb more than he worships Allah."
While unstinting in his criticism of religious fanaticism, Peres voiced his belief that religion could nonetheless play an important role in the fight against global terror and the advancement of peace.
"God never appointed anyone to murder in His name or on His behalf," said Peres. "Anyone who believes in God and His way must believe in the sanctity of life."
In this context, Peres proposed the creation of a united front between Christians, Muslims and Jews, coming together for dialogue in a global forum.
Peres also spoke of the traumatic effect that the ongoing bombardment of Kassam rockets has had on the residents of Sderot. Israel cannot refrain from responding to these terrible attacks on innocent children and schools, said Peres.
Peres also invited the pope to come to Israel, possibly for Easter or Christmas. The pope expressed a preference for Easter, and indicated his readiness to put the wheels in motion for an official visit.
Peres also invited Napolitano to come to Israel for the country's 60th Independence Day celebrations.
At his meeting with D'Alema, who had met less than 24 hours previously with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Jerusalem, Peres said that Iran was the global supplier of ideology, money and arms to nearly all of the world's terrorist organizations.
Peres warned D'Alema that Italy could not continue a policy of closing its eyes to the Iranian nuclear arms program.
"Time is running out," said Peres, spelling out the potential catastrophe that would occur if terrorist organizations had access to nuclear arms.
Members of the president's entourage were delighted with the overall reception that he received in Italy. Beyond the warm welcome from Italy's Jewish community, he was welcomed with great enthusiasm by the Italian leadership and assured of Italy's political consensus on Israel's right to exist in peace and security, though mention was also made of similar rights for Palestinians.
Peres will participate in an international conference at Lake Como on Friday, together with a number of dignitaries, including representatives from Arab countries.