Pope Francis on Monday praised the “courage” of the Zionist President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after both agreed to come to the Vatican to pray with him for peace.
Abbas and Peres “have the courage to move forward”, Francis told reporters on his return flight from a three-day trip to the Middle East.
“The meeting in the Vatican is to pray together, it’s not a mediation,” the Argentinian pope stressed of the “prayer summit” scheduled for June 6, after both Peres and Abbas accepted his surprise invitation issued on Sunday.
“It is a prayer without discussions,” said the pontiff, who has made interfaith dialogue a cornerstone of his 14-month-old papacy.
He had stated the three-day trip would be “purely religious” but waded into sensitive issues, praying at the controversial West Bank separation barrier in another unscripted move which the Palestinians saw as a silent condemnation of the Israeli government’s policies.
Francis, 77, on Monday capped his diplomatic high-wire act with a mass at a contested Jerusalem site where he made an impassioned call for an end to religious intolerance, saying believers must have free access to sites they consider sacred within the Holy City.
Vatican efforts to negotiate greater rights for Christians to access the Upper Room have sparked angry and sometimes violent opposition from nationalist and Orthodox Jews, who revere part of the building as the tomb of King David.
Touring the holiest sites in Jerusalem’s walled Old City early Monday, he issued a call for the three religions to “work together for justice and peace” as he was shown around the Al-Aqsa compound, the third holiest site in Islam which Jews also consider sacred.
At the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray, he left a note in between the ancient stones before sharing an emotional embrace with two close friends travelling with him, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud.
In Bethlehem he surprised his entourage by hopping out of his white open jeep to touch and briefly pray at the Zionist towering concrete separation barrier which cuts through the West Bank city in what the Palestinians hailed as an “eloquent and clear message”.
In Jordan, the pontiff appealed for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, before flying to Bethlehem, in what was seen as a nod towards Palestinian statehood aspirations.