Pope Francis has welcomed the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican for an evening of peace prayers just weeks after the last round of US-sponsored negotiations collapsed.
Israeli President Shimon Peres was the first to arrive on Sunday at the Vatican hotel where Francis lives, to be followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Francis warmly embraced Mr Peres and they headed into a private meeting.
Vatican officials have insisted that Francis has no political agenda by inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace among the two parties.
The unusual prayer summit was a feat of diplomatic and religious protocol, organised in the two weeks since Francis issued the surprise invitation to Mr Peres and Mr Abbas from Manger Square in Bethlehem.
It is taking place in the Vatican gardens in the shadow of St Peter’s Basilica, the most religiously neutral place in the tiny city-state, and will incorporate Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian.
The prayers focus on three themes common to each of the religions: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region.
Francis, Mr Peres and Mr Abbas are also expected to deliver brief remarks, shake hands and plant an olive tree together in a sign of peace.
Vatican officials have described the prayer evening as something of a “time-out” in political negotiations, merely designed to rekindle the desire for peace through prayers common to all the main faith traditions in the Holy Land.
Francis’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said at the end of Francis’s Middle East trip: “Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don’t even realise and should be exploited to the full.
“Prayer has the ability to transform hearts, and thus to transform history.”
That said, no concrete results are expected: Mr Peres has no formal role in peace negotiations, holds a largely ceremonial post and leaves office at the end of the month.
But Nadav Tamir, a political adviser to Mr Peres, said the Israeli government authorised the trip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in “constant contact” with Mr Peres.
Speaking on Israeli Army Radio, Mr Tamir stressed the meeting was not political, even though he said Mr Peres and Mr Abbas were expected to discuss political developments when they meet in private after the prayer.
Mr Netanyahu had urged the world to shun Mr Abbas’s new unity government which took office last week because it is backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. His pleas have been ignored by the West, with both the US and the European Union saying they will give the unity government a chance.
Mr Tamir added: “The government of Israel decided not to hold political negotiations, but we aren’t talking about political negotiations. We are talking about a different gesture, a spiritual gesture, an act of public diplomacy.
Mr Abbas told Italian daily La Repubblica that Francis’s invitation was “an act of great courage.”
“Nothing should stop us in the search for solutions so that both of our people can live in their own sovereign state,” he was quoted as saying in Sunday’s editions.