Pope Francis visited Israel and Palestine on May 25 and issued an invitation to host both the Palestinian and Israeli presidents for a prayer summit at his apartment in the Vatican. Francis took the big step while in Bethlehem, where he became the first pontiff ever to refer to the Israeli-occupied land as the “State of Palestine.”
After referring to the relationship shared by Palestine and Israel as “increasingly unacceptable,” Francis made an unscheduled stop at the contentious concrete barrier that separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem, to pray and touch his head against the graffiti-covered wall.
“There is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual, and on mutual security… Peace must resolutely be pursued, even if each side has to make certain sacrifices,” Francis said.
Both presidents Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and Shimon Peres of Israel accepted the pope’s invitation and the former’s spokesman confirmed that the meeting would take place on June 6. While the meeting is expected to be more symbolic than substantive, it could kick start another peace process between the two nations that seems to have disintegrated in recent years. Francis’ move on Sunday was reminiscent of the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter for international diplomacy.
“Plunging into Middle East politics can be especially perilous. In a region where religious divisions overlay the political impasse, Francis’ prayer summit is taking the negotiations to another level — a meeting before God… The idea, he added, is to “make religion part of trying to find a solution instead of it being seen as a negative and a complication,” said Jamal Khadar, head of a West Bank seminary and a spokesman for the pope’s visit.
This was Francis’ second three-day sojourn through the Holy Land and the trip offered a strict itinerary. The stated purpose of the trip was the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of an iconic Jerusalem handshake that happened to be the first contact between the world’s two largest churches in 500 years. However, this purpose was overshadowed by the pope’s sudden decision to wade into the conflicted areas shared by Palestinians and Israelis.
Photo Credit: Tânia Rêgo/ABr (Agência Brasil), Wikimedia Commons