Pope Francis continues on his remarkable journey as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, once again delving directly into politics, extending an invitation to the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to travel to the Vatican for a "peace initiative." CNN reported yesterday that this invitation came after an earlier calling by Pope Francis for a two-state solution to the intractable conflict.
The remarks of the pontiff remarks came at the end of an outdoor Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square on the second day of his three-day trip to the Middle East. "In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with Israeli President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," Pope Francis said. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer."
He added, "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."
The Palestinian side has accepted the invitation and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will go to the Vatican, a Palestinian Legislative Council member, Hanan Ashrawi, told CNN. While the Israeli President's office said that he welcomed the invitation that was not a firm commitment that the Israelis will attend. However, another report from the Jerusalem Post indicated that Peres had indeed accepted the invitation. "President Peres has always supported, and will continue to support, any attempts to progress the cause of peace," his office said.
Pope Francis then traveled on to Tel Aviv, where in remarks on the airport tarmac to Peres and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he again issued an invitation to pray for peace at the Vatican. He also reiterated the Vatican's support for Israel's right to exist in peace and security.
The next stop on his historic trip was Jerusalem.
Earlier, speaking alongside Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Francis called for the recognition of a Palestinian state -- but he made the same demand on behalf of the state of Israel.
He urged "the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders."
The Pope called on all sides to pursue a path to peace together and not take unilateral actions to disrupt it.
"I can only express my profound hope that all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement, and that peace will be pursued with tireless determination and tenacity," he said.
Middle East peace talks recently stalled despite high-profile efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to push them forward.
The government of Israel has objected to unilateral initiatives by Palestinians to seek international recognition as a state, and Palestinians have objected to Israeli initiatives to expand settlements on the West Bank.
In his remarks in Bethlehem, Francis called on Abbas to protect the religious rights of Palestinian Catholics.
The Vatican has expressed concern over the emigration of Palestinian Christians.
The pontiff also took a stand for the poor, suffering under tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Even in the absence of violence, the climate of instability and a lack of mutual understanding have produced insecurity, the violation of rights, isolation and the flight of entire communities, conflicts, shortages and sufferings of every sort," he said.
After meeting with Abbas, Francis cruised in the Popemobile through a crowd of hundreds of Catholic faithful and onlookers gathered in Manger Square as they awaited the papal Mass.
Priests and the faithful swayed to religious music, while many waved red, green, black and white Palestinian flags and others yellow and white Vatican flags.
Mustafa Barghouti, the general secretary of the Palestine National Initiative, was not happy about a stop the pontiff made at a separation barrier erected by Israel, its surface daubed with graffiti including the words "Free Palestine!" There, arm outstretched, he touched the concrete wall, his head apparently bowed in prayer. "The Pope did not only put his hand on a concrete wall. He put his hand on occupation. He put his hand on (an) apartheid system, on a system of separation, and discrimination, and oppression."
It will not be an easy negotiation either.
CNN - Pope Francis invites Israeli, Palestinian leaders to Vatican peace talks