Pope and Presidents pray for peace

Pope Francis yesterday welcomed the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican for an evening of prayers for peace in the region. The occasion came just weeks after the last round of US-sponsored negotiations collapsed and following the Holy Father’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month at which he invited the two men to his 'home' for what has been termed a Prayer Encounter.

Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas embraced in the foyer of the Santa Marta guesthouse, Pope Francis’ residence and seemed in good spirits as they walked with the pontiff through the Vatican gardens. They sat on either side of the Pope for an invocation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers that lasted for an hour.  The prayers were delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian and the gathering enjoyed musical interludes from the three faith traditions.

Pope Francis told the two men and their accompanying parties that he hoped the Peace Encounter would mark "a new journey" toward peace. "Peace-making calls for courage, much more so than warfare," he said. "It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict."

The Presidents of Israel & Palestine plant an olive tree with Pope FrancisOfficials in the Vatican have insisted that Pope Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But by being able to bring them together in such a venue so soon after the failure of peace talks could have great symbolic significance.

"In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important," says the former editor of America magazine, Fr Thomas Reese SJ, who is Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican?"

Yesterday’s prayers in the shadow of St Peter’s Basilica focused on three themes common to Judaism, Islam and Christianity: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region. At the end of the gathering, Pope Francis, President Peres and President Abbas shook hands and planted an olive tree together as a sign of peace. Also involved in the meeting was Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

Vatican officials have described the prayer evening as something of a ‘time-out’ in political negotiations. But the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the power of prayer should not be discounted for its ability to change reality. "Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don't even realise and should be exploited to the full," he said at the end of Pope Francis' trip to the Middle East. "Prayer has the ability to transform hearts and thus to transform history."

Above: President Peres of Israel and President Abbas of Palestine plant an olive tree with Pope Francis in the Vatican gardens (credit: Chaim Tzach/ GPO)

Below: Catholic News Service published this video of Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Vatican Gardens on Sunday, in the prayer for peace in the Holy Land hosted by the pontiff.