Francis' papal peace initiative

Pope Francis has issued an invitation to the Presidents of Israel and of Palestine to attend prayers for peace at the Vatican. The invitation was issued during the Holy Father's three-day visit to the Holy Land and has been described as being very much his own initiative.

Pope Francis is in the Middle East principally to improve ties between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church: he is due to meet the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's historic meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras I.

However, during Mass in Bethlehem on Sunday, the Pope talked of the "tragic consequences of the protracted conflict", saying "the time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable". He spoke of the need "to intensify efforts and initiatives" to create a stable peace - based on a two-state solution, and went on to invite the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and President Shimon Peres of Israel to come to the Vatican to pray for peace. Pope Francis' invitation came during an open-air Mass for 8,000 local Christians near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, during which he said he wished to invite Mr Abbas and Mr Peres to join him at the Vatican "in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace".

On his way to Bethlehem - the City of David and birthplace of Jesus - the pontiff stopped to pray at an eight-metre concrete wall that forms part of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank. In an unscheduled stop, he stood for a few moments with his head resting against the graffiti-covered wall before continuing to Manger Square.

The Pope's spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, described the invitation to the two leaders as a "papal peace initiative". He also told the BBC's reporter Jeremy Bowen that he believed it was the first of its kind.

PHOTO: Pope Francis greets crowds on his way to Manger Square in Bethlehem, credit: AFP