Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas called for peace on Sunday at an unprecedented prayer with Pope Francis on Sunday amid heightened tensions between the two sides.
Peres said peacemaking was a “duty” and a “holy mission” at the spiritual event in the Vatican Gardens, and Abbas called for a “comprehensive and just peace” that could bring stability to the Middle East.
Joined by the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the three spoke after hearing Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers and musical interludes in what Peres defined as “an unusual call for peace”.
“Two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, still are aching for peace. The tears of mothers over their children are still etched in our hearts. We must put an end to the cries, to the violence,” Peres said.
Abbas said: “We want peace for us and our neighbours.”
The four leaders then symbolically shovelled soil for a newly-planted olive tree and held a closed-door meeting in a Vatican pavilion, following the collapse of US-backed Middle East peace talks earlier this year.
Francis called for the “courage” to make peace.
“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” said the Argentine pontiff, who invited the two during his visit to the Middle East last month.
“It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict, yes to dialogue and no to violence, yes to negotiations and no to hostilities, yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation, yes to sincerity and no to duplicity,” he said.
Abbas and Peres, who is 90 and is stepping down next month, greeted each other warmly when they arrived at the Vatican and met Francis outside his residence.
Abbas said he hoped the that ceremony would “help Israel decide” to make peace and told La Repubblica daily that the pope’s invitation had been “courageous”.
Tensions are running high between the two sides following the formation of a new Palestinian unity government backed by the Islamist group Hamas.
Israel has since announced plans for building 3,200 new settler homes and has said it will boycott what it denounces as a “government of terror”.
Peres on Sunday said the Palestinian unity government was “a contradiction that can’t last very long”, but Abbas defended it saying: “One should never reject a chance for dialogue, internally as well.”
– ‘Time to stop and breathe’ –
The Vatican was realistic about the effect of the event.
“Nobody is fooling themselves that peace will break out in the Holy Land,” said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Middle East who helped organise the historic event.
“But this time to stop and breathe has been absent for some time,” he told reporters at a briefing, adding: “Not everything is decided by politics.”
Francis has admitted it would be “crazy” to expect any Vatican mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but said that praying together might help in some way.
In a tweet from the Argentine pontiff’s @pontifex account on Saturday, Francis said: “Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world.”
The prayers were recited in the chronological order of the three monotheistic religions, starting with Judaism, followed by Christianity and then Islam.
Each of the three faiths prayed an “invocation for forgiveness” and an “invocation for peace” and prayers were read in Arabic, English, Hebrew and Italian.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud, two friends of Francis’s from Buenos Aires who travelled and prayed together with the pontiff on his trip to the Middle East also attended.
Every detail of the event was carefully planned.
The day was chosen to avoid the Muslim holy day of Friday and the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday and falls on the Christian holiday of Pentecost — a celebration of the Holy Spirit considered appropriate for the event.
The choice of the Vatican Gardens as a location was also significant since it was considered the most neutral territory in the Vatican, with none of the Christian imagery that might have caused offence.