Pope Francis on Sunday hosts an unprecedented joint peace prayer in the Vatican with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in a symbolic gesture aimed at fostering dialogue.
President Shimon Peres appealed for peace Sunday afternoon, in a garden of the Vatican City. Quoting in Hebrew from Psalm 122, he asked those present to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem," saying that those who love the city shall prosper. Switching to English, he repeated what he said in Hebrew about Pope Francis bearing "a renewed inspiration to trust in heaven, to love the people, and to care for the earth. It is in that spirit that I have come here from Jerusalem, the cradle of the three monotheistic religions, and the vibrant heart of the Jewish People. In Hebrew, the word Jerusalem and the word for peace, share the same root – Shalom. And it is with that prayer in our heart and that call to action that we stand together. From Jerusalem, I have come to call for Shalom – Peace. Peace between nations. Peace between faiths. Peace between people. Peace for our children."
Peres said the Bible "commands us to walk the path of peace. It demands of us to toil for its realization." He continued, quoting from the Bible: “Whoever loves life and desires to see good days, let him turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” This, he said, "is a command to pursue peace. All year long. Every day. We greet each other with this blessing. Shalom. Salam. We must be worthy of the deep and demanding meaning of this blessing. Peace does not come easy. It calls for sacrifice and compromise. Without peace, we are not complete. We have yet to achieve this mission of humanity. Even when peace seems distant, we must pursue it to bring it closer. And if we pursue peace with determination, with faith, we will reach it. And it will endure through all of us, as is written by Isaiah: 'They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.'
Peres closed with the Hebrew, "May He who makes peace on high make peace on us and on all of Israel and on all of the world and let us say 'Amen'."
Abbas said he hoped the event in the Vatican Gardens at 5:00 p.m. GMT, which includes Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers and the planting of an olive tree by all three leaders, would "help Israel decide.”
"The pope's invitation was courageous," Abbas said in an interview with the La Repubblica daily.
"With this prayer we are sending a message to all believers of the three major religions and the others: the dream of peace must not die," he said.
The Vatican is being realistic about the ceremony, which is unlikely to have any immediate effect.
"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 is organizing 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 made the offer to Abbas and Peres on his first visit as pontiff to the Middle East last month and ahead of the meeting on Sunday he reiterated his call for a Catholic Church able to "shake things up.”
Speaking to thousands of followers in St Peter's Square, Francis pointed to the two colonnades around the plaza and said they were like "two arms which open to welcome but do not close again to imprison.”
Francis earlier admitted it would be "crazy" to expect any Vatican mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but said prayer might help.
In a tweet from the pope'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 Vatican has defined the meeting as an "invocation for peace" but has stressed it will not be an "inter-religious prayer", which would have posed problems for the three faiths.
In the Vatican Gardens, the prayers will be recited in chronological order of the world's three main monotheistic religions, starting with Judaism, followed by Christianity and then Islam.
The prayers from each of the three will focus on "creation", "invocation for forgiveness" and "invocation for peace" and will be read in Arabic, English, Hebrew and Italian, the Vatican said.
Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim professor Omar Abboud, two friends of Francis's from Buenos Aires who travelled with him and prayed together on his trip to the Middle East will also attend.
The Vatican said the event, which has been carefully planned in detail, was "a pause from politics.”
Friday was ruled out since it is a Muslim holy day and Saturday for the same reason for the Jewish community, while Sunday is Pentecost for Catholics – a day of celebration of the Holy Spirit considered appropriate for the event.
The choice of the Vatican Gardens as a location is also significant since it was considered the most neutral territory within the Vatican City, with none of the Christian iconography that might be seen as offensive to the other two faiths.