The presidents of Israel and Palestine met on Sunday in an unprecedented prayer meeting with Pope Francis, a gesture he hopes will “recreate a desire, a possibility” of relaunching the Middle East peace process.
The Vatican played down any expectations that the meeting between Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas – billed as a “pause from politics” – would lead to any immediate breakthrough and said it was not meddling in regional issues.
“No one is presumptuous enough to think peace will break out on Monday,” said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is in charge of Catholic sites in the Holy Land and a key organiser of the encounter.
“The intention of this initiative is to reopen a road that has been closed for some time, to recreate a desire, a possibility, to make people dream,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend and he refuses to deal with the Palestinian unity government, backed by Hamas Islamists, which Mr Abbas swore in last Monday. Mr Peres, who has a ceremonial role, will leave office next month.
Mr Netanyahu has made no direct comment on the meeting but in remarks on Sunday at a paramilitary police base in Jerusalem, he suggested prayer is no substitute for security.
“For thousands of years, the people of Israel have been praying for peace daily,” he said. “But until peace comes, we will continue to strengthen you so that you can continue to defend the state of Israel. Ultimately, that is what will guarantee our future and will also bring peace.”
But the fact Pope Francis managed to bring the two presidents together underlined his desire to engage political leaders, offering inter-religious dialogue as a building block.
The meeting took place more than a month after US-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter recriminations. The Pope, in his Sunday address in St Peter’s Square, said he hoped faithful of all religions “will unite themselves spiritually to our plea”.
The Pope made his surprise invitation to the two heads of state during his visit to the Holy Land last month.
The orchestrated event on a small lawn in the Vatican gardens – a space the Vatican called “neutral” because it is bereft of religious symbols – was the presidents’ first public meeting in more than a year.
It also marked the first time that Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers were held in the Vatican.