Vatican is set for today's Peace Prayer Encounter

Today’s prayer encounter with the Presidents of Israel and Palestine at the Vatican will provide space for people to stand back from the Middle East conflict and “recreate a desire for change”, according to the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa”. He was speaking at a press conference on Friday, at which he and the head of the Holy See’s press office, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, announced details of the encounter between Pope Francis, President Shimon Peres of Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, would also be attending.

Pope Francis invited President Shimon Peres of Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (pictured with the Pope in Bethlehem) to the prayer encounter during his brief but intense visit to the Holy Land last month. Admitting that “building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment,” Pope Francis offered ‘his home’ as the venue for the peace encounter. He went on to invite the leaders to come to the Vatican to join him in “heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.” The Israeli and Palestinian presidents both immediately accepted that invitation and will be arriving in the Vatican around 6.30pm this evening. They will each be accompanied by delegations of about 20 people representing their respective faith communities.

Pope Francis will briefly welcome the Palestinian and Israeli leaders at the Casa Santa Marta where he lives. He will then accompany them, with Patriarch Bartholomew, to a specially prepared venue surrounded by two tall hedges between the Pontifical Academy of Sciences building and a wing of the Vatican museums. Having walked together through the Vatican gardens, each faith community will present a piece of music, after which they will thank God for the gift of creation, ask forgiveness for sins committed and pray for the gift of peace. Pope Francis and the two presidents will add their own calls for peace in the region, before exchanging greetings, planting an olive tree as a visible symbol of their desire for an end to the conflict and sharing a moment of private conversation together.

At Friday’s press conference in the Vatican, Fr Pizzaballa stressed that the prayer encounter was a purely religious event which he did not expect to lead to any overnight solutions to the complex problems of the Middle East. However, he added that it might just reopen a path of dialogue and allow people to dream of a world where peace really is possible.

Hear Philippa Hitchens' preview of today's historic prayer encounter on Vatican Radio here.