Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet at the Vatican and pray for peace together at an unprecedented gathering on June 8, the Vatican said on Thursday. In one of his boldest political gestures since his election in March, 2013, Pope Francis invited the two leaders to come to the Vatican and hold a joint prayer meeting with him during the pontiff's trip to the Holy Land last week.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the two had accepted that the meeting would take place on a Sunday afternoon. That morning the pope will be presiding at a Pentacost Sunday service in St Peter's Square. The pope, who made the surprise invitation at the end of a Mass in Bethlehem last Saturday, told reporters on the plane returning to Rome that he was not getting directly involved in the stalled Mideast peace process, something he said would be "crazy on my part".
But he said he hoped the prayer meeting, which comes after flailing diplomatic efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would help create an atmosphere that would help the eventual resumption of talks. "Courage is needed to do this and I am praying to the Lord very much so that these two leaders, these two governments, have the courage to move forward. This is the only path for peace," Francis said on the plane.
The pope said a rabbi and an Islamic official would be present, without giving details. The meeting is expected to take place in either the guest house where the pope lives in the Vatican or part of the modern complex used for papal general audiences. When he made the invitation in Bethlehem, the pope said he was offering his "home" for the meeting.
The offer came just a month after U.S.-led peace talks collapsed amid bitter, mutual recrimination. It was not clear, however, how the unusual prayer encounter could break decades of mutual mistrust.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the key Israeli decision-maker, will not be at the prayer meeting. Furthermore, Peres is due to leave office in July. "We will work together, Jews, Christians and Muslims to bring an end to the conflicts," Peres said on Monday, speaking alongside the pope in Jerusalem.
(Editing by Stephen Addison)