Pope Francis welcomed Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican on Sunday in an attempt to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hosting an evening of prayers for peace in Israel, Peres and Abbas joined the pope over a sunset invocation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers. Francis told both leaders that he hoped the prayer summit would mark “a new journey” toward peace.
The Vatican also invited the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian church to present a united Christian front in supporting peace in Israel.
The pope urged Israel and the Palestinians to open up dialogue and usher in a new era of coexistence. He invoked the memory of children killed by war and conflict between the two sides to instill patience and strength to bring about peace.
“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” Francis said. “It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict.”
Vatican officials insisted that the pope had no political agenda in hosting the two leaders. They said that Francis seeks to rekindle the fires of peace and that the meeting holds symbolic significance in restarting failed US-brokered peace talks.
The prayers, which were held in the Vatican gardens alongside St. Peter’s Basilica, incorporated Jewish, Christian and Muslim themes common to each religion. Prayers were delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian.
The main themes, as set by the pope, were centered on asking God for peace in Israel, thanking God for creation, and seeking forgiveness to wrongdoings.
At the end of the prayer summit, Francis, Peres and Abbas shook hands and planted an olive tree together as a sign of peace.
The Vatican expects no immediate results from the prayer summit but hopes that the event will help close the divide between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Nobody is fooling themselves that peace will break out in the Holy Land,” stated Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, head of the Franciscan Order in the Middle East who organized the event.
“But this time to stop and breathe has been absent some time. Not everything is decided by politics,” he added.
Peres, speaking in the Vatican gardens, quoted Psalm 122 in asking for peace in Israel. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” he urged, saying those who love the ancient and holy city will prosper.
The Israeli president thanked Francis for bearing a “renewed inspiration to trust in heaven, to love the people, and to care for the earth.”
“It is in that spirit that I have come here from Jerusalem, the cradle of three monotheistic religions, and the vibrant heart of the Jewish people. In Hebrew, the word Jerusalem and the word for peace, share the same root – Shalom,” Peres explained.
“And it is with that prayer in our heart and that call to action that we stand together. From Jerusalem, I have come to call for Shalom – Peace. Peace between nations. Peace between faiths. Peace between people. Peace for our children,” he said.
Peres pointed to a command in the Bible which “commands us to walk the peace of peace. It demands of us to toil for its realization.” Quoting further from the Bible, Peres said, “Whoever loves life and desires to see good days, let him turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”
“It is a command to pursue peace. All year long. Every day. We greet each other with this blessing. Shalom. Salam. We must be worthy of the deep and demanding meaning of this blessing…Even when peace seems distant, we must pursue it to bring it closer,” Peres said.
“And if we pursue peace with determination, with faith, we will reach it. And it will endure through all of us, as it is written by Isaiah: ‘They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’”