NBC wonders whether this amounts to a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. If so, it could hardly do worse than what has preceded it. While traveling on a pilgrimage through the Holy Land, Pope Francis extended an invitation to Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to visit the Vatican together to join in prayer for peace — an offer accepted by both:
Pope Francis extended an invitation Sunday to the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to travel to the Vatican for a “peace initiative,” as he called for a two-state solution to the intractable conflict.
The pontiff’s remarks came at the end of an outdoor Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on the second day of his three-day trip to the Middle East.
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” Francis said.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
NBC notes the quick acceptance from the two presidents:
The Israeli and Palestinian presidents will pay a symbolic visit to the Vatican next month to pray for peace after accepting an impromptu invitation from Pope Francis.
Francis issued the surprise, joint invitation after landing in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state.
In another unscripted moment, he prayed at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the biblical West Bank town and briefly donned the checkered black and white headscarf that is a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
Jubilant Palestinians cheered Francis as he arrived in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, shouting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the pope!” Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black and the Vatican’s yellow-and-white flags decorated the square, which is home to the Church of the Nativity, built over Jesus’ traditional birth grotto.
At the end of Mass in the square, Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray with him for peace, saying: “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed that they had accepted the invitation, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would take place in June.
The inclusion of Peres rather than Benjamin Netanyahu will get some attention. Diplomatically, it makes sense; both men fill the role of head of state. Peres’ office is more ceremonial, and Abbas’ “state” is aspirational. Netanyahu is the head of government in Israel, not of the state (in the US, both offices are combined in the presidency). Peres has long been more vocal about the peace process, which makes him a more sympathetic partner for Francis in this “prayer diplomacy” effort. I’ve attended the Peres-directed Presidential Conference on two occasions in Jerusalem, and the tilt of the agenda is clearly in the direction of a negotiated two-state solution with Abbas. It will be interesting to see how Netanyahu responds, but I’d assume he’d stay positive about it publicly and otherwise be happy to put it at arm’s length.
Both CNN and NBC make a little bit bigger deal of Francis’ “recognition” of Palestine as a state. The Vatican has long used that language about Palestine; this is not a new development. Two other symbolic acts are new developments, though. Previous pontiffs have visited the West Bank through Israel; Francis went through Jordan to the West Bank and then through to Israel, as we did on our pilgrimage last fall. Pope Francis also made an unscheduled stop in Bethlehem to pray at the security wall, which cuts through the city, in a rather clear show of support over local objections to the wall and its placement on Palestinian land.
That’s not to say that Francis didn’t have a message for the Palestinians, either. The Vatican has long been alarmed at the pressures on Christians in the Holy Land, and challenged Abbas to protect the ancient minority:
In his remarks, Francis called on Abbas to protect the religious rights of Palestinian Catholics.
The Vatican has expressed concern over the emigration of Palestinian Christians.
Will this joint prayer service restart the peace process? The odds are long, and the divisions deep. Prayer cannot hurt, though, and perhaps Pope Francis has more acumen on bridging divisions than successions of American administrations.
For those who missed Pope Francis’ arrival in Bethlehem this morning, Catholic TV has the video.
The pontiff has already arrived in Israel, where he will continue his pilgrimage this week.