Abbas, Peres ready to overcome mistrust at Vatican
Pope Francis hosts an unprecedented joint peace prayer in the Vatican on Sunday with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents in a bid to overcome decades of mistrust even as tensions flare up over plans for new Jewish settlements.
Francis invited the two leaders unexpectedly during his trip to the Middle East last month but has stressed the initiative is purely spiritual and is not part of an attempt by the Vatican to mediate in the conflict.
"This prayer meeting will not be for mediation or to find solutions. We are just meeting up to pray. Then everyone goes home," the Argentine pontiff told journalists during an impromptu press conference on the flight back to Rome.
"Praying together without any talks could help," he said, after US-led peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators collapsed in bitter recriminations in April.
"Concrete peace measures have to come from negotiation. To be honest, I do not feel competent to say: we need to do this or that. It would be crazy on my part!" he added.
The precise format for this prayer and even where it will take place are being kept under wraps but it is likely it will be held behind closed doors and possibly in the pope's residence or outdoors in the Vatican gardens.
Abbas and Peres are expected to be accompanied by imams and rabbis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, a top Orthodox leader, could also join in.
"They will pray together but each in respect of their faith," the Vatican affairs website Il Sismografo reported.
Israeli-Palestinian relations have taken a further turn for the worse in recent days following the formation of a new Palestinian unity government this week as part of a reconciliation deal between Abbas and Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas, who are sworn enemies of Israel.
Israeli media on Thursday said Housing Minister Uri Ariel had invited bids for 1,500 new homes in Jewish settlements in retaliation for the new Hamas-backed government.
Of the new homes, 400 would be in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem with the rest elsewhere in the occupied West Bank.
- 'Heartfelt prayer' -
The 77-year-old leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics issued his invitation on May 25 in Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born.
He asked the two leaders "to join me in heartfelt prayer".
"Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace," he added.
Francis said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "increasingly unacceptable" and called for "courage" to achieve a peace based on a two-state solution.
But there was fierce criticism of the pope's visit in Israel, particularly over the Catholic leader's unscheduled stop at the Separation Barrier in the West Bank.
Francis is no stranger to this type of spiritual diplomacy.
In September last year, Francis called a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria at a time when France and the United States appeared ready to authorise air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Vatican diplomacy also has several earlier successes under its belt, including a mediation that averted war between Argentina and Chile in 1978 over disputed territory.
Late pope John XXIII -- known as "Good Pope John" -- also helped defuse tensions during the Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962.
The pope's Middle East prayer initiative fits in with a pattern of symbolic gestures aimed at showing greater unity between the world's three main monotheistic religions, underlining common roots in an attempt to foster piece in a land that is holy to all three faiths.
The best illustration of that was his "Our Father" prayer left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where he also shared an emotional embrace with two close Jewish and Muslim friends from Buenos Aires who were travelling with him.