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Pope Francis hopes historic prayer meeting will resolve conflicts in Israel

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On Monday, June 9, Peter Weber of The Week gave an overview of an historic meeting where Pope Francis I met with Israeli and Palestinian political leaders and Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Orthodox Christian Church at the Vatican and prayed for peace during a simple ceremony. Weber suggested that the event indicates that the Pope may have figured out a way to finally bring peace to Jews and Muslims who live in Israel.

According to Weber, "On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres met at a garden in the Vatican, prayed together, laughed together, hugged each other, and planted an olive tree with the pope and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, leader of the world's Orthodox Christian churches. This feat of diplomatic acrobatics was arranged at the pope's behest in about two weeks, during which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to isolate Abbas' government for forming a pact with Hamas.

"Of course, there are reasons to believe this promising beginning is just another in a long line of false starts. Peres has always been more amenable to negotiating than Netanyahu; the prime minister shut down back-channel talks between Abbas and Peres in 2011, Peres said in a recent TV interview. And even if Peres had real authority to negotiate, he's leaving his largely ceremonial office at the end of June. On top of all that, the Holy See has a tiny diplomatic corps and approximately zero carrots to offer either Israel or Palestine, and few sticks.

"Still, it's time for something new. ...The Vatican isn't exactly neutral when it comes to the status of Jerusalem or security in Bethlehem. Its main concern — other than world peace, of course — is the region's Christian population and access to and preservation of many of Christianity's holiest sites. That's something different for a mediator. When Pope Francis talks about wanting peace between Israel and Palestinians, most people will take him at his word: Making peace is in his job description, and in his choice of namesake."

In a recent report posted on Sunday, June 8, Alan Johnston of BBC News seemed to have a more pessimistic outlook on how much impact the Pope's efforts could have in Israel. He added that the Pope said he will stay away from the political aspects of the ongoing conflicts between Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians.

According to Johnston, "Pope Francis has said he'll make no attempt to mediate between his Israeli and Palestinian visitors. He says that's a job for diplomats.

"The Pope is trying something a little different here - a spiritual approach. He hopes that the prayers in the calm of the Vatican gardens might just improve the atmosphere between the two sides. And that that in turn might perhaps lead to the opening of new possibilities for peace.

For Pope Francis, the power of prayer has the capacity to change everything. But those most familiar with the harsh realities of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are likely to look on with some considerable skepticism."

Josephine McKenna and Inna Lazareva of The Telegraph reported on Sunday that all four of the leaders who participated in the prayer ceremony made statements that might encourage people to believe that real progress toward peace in the region may happen. Their prayers all expressed sentiments similar to the Pope's simple, yet moving call for action.

According to McKenna and Lazareva, "The ceremony ended with the three leaders' individual invocations for peace. It was the first time the two presidents had met publicly in more than a year but the ceremony also marked the first time that Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers were said together in such a way at the Vatican.

"Peres described the Pope as a 'bridge builder' who had touched peoples' hearts regardless of their faith or nation during his visit to the Holy Land in May. He said Israelis and Palestinians were both 'aching for peace'. 'Peace does not come easy,' Peres said. 'We are yet achieve this. We must pursue it and bring it closer.'

"Abbas thanked the Pope 'from the bottom of my heart' for proposing the ceremony and called for a 'comprehensive and just peace' with Israel. 'O Lord, bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence,' he said. He described the Pope's May visit as 'a sincere expression of your belief in peace and a truthful attempt to achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis'."

McKenna and Lazareva reported that the Pope encouraged Abbas and Peres to not give up on peace talks despite some setbacks earlier this year. The latest round of negotiations between the two peoples broke down in April, with leaders from both sides blaming each other for their inability to make progress.

According to McKenna and Lazareva, "The Pope said too many children had been killed by war and said the two leaders "must respond" to their people's 'yearning for the dawn of peace' in the Middle East. He called on them to find 'the strength to persevere undaunted in dialogue', following the breakdown of talks in April.

"'It is my hope that this meeting will mark the beginning of a new journey where we seek things that unite, so as to overcome the things that divide,' the Pope said in a short address to the gathering. 'Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict, yes to dialogue and no to violence.'"

Weber sees reasons to hope that the Pope's efforts could result in a two-state solution where Israel and Palestine will recognize each group's right to exist. He added that he sees practical benefits for most Israelis and Palestinians.

According to Weber, "Everyone knows that Israel will come out ahead, since possession is nine-tenths of the law and the Palestinian Authority has no army, no sovereignty in any real sense of the word, and no particularly powerful advocate on the world stage. The question is how much, and how to get to an agreement. ... Both Israel and Palestine would benefit from being two peacefully coexisting states, even if certain parts of each country (Israeli settlers and Hamas militants, for example) wouldn't."

However, if a recent article by Sharona Schwartz that appeared in The Blaze is accurate, Netanyahu may not be the only one resisting a two-state solution. Schwartz's article states that a Hamas insider made comments on Sunday, June 8 indicating that Abbas was lying when he made public statements about his desire for peace and when he officially recognized Israel's right to exist.

According to Schwartz, "The former spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza said that Abbas’ statements to the West are designed 'to trick the Americans' and that his sympathies are more in line with the Hamas view opposing Israel's right to exist. Ihab al-Ghussein wrote on Facebook Sunday that Abbas in private meetings told Hamas officials that he has crafted his public statements recognizing Israel’s right to exist to dupe the U.S., according to a translation.

"Within hours of its formation last week, the Obama administration announced it would work with the new Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas and the Abbas-headed Fatah party. While Abbas has publicly insisted the government recognizes Israel’s right to exist, Hamas has stated it remains committed to the armed struggle against Israel and would continue to try to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

"Palestinian Media Watch, a research organization that tracks incitement in the official Palestinian media, provided the translation of the former spokesman’s Facebook post: 'You know what Mahmoud Abbas says behind closed doors?? He says: ‘Guys, let me [continue] saying what I say to the media. Those words are meant for the Americans and the occupation (i.e., Israel), not for you [Hamas]. What’s important is what we agree on among ourselves.'"

If Schwartz's report is true, then it might take more than the Pope's eloquence and sincerity to move Abbas to agree to any sort of deal the Israeli government could accept. Johnston may have been right after all when he suggested that the prayer meeting may not do as much good as Weber hopes it will.

There may also be obstacles in the path of the peace process that are more supernatural in nature. Students of the Bible who interpret prophecies in books such as Daniel and the Revelation of John literally would argue that there can be no peace in Israel until some point during the first half of a seven-year period commonly referred to as the Great Tribulation. So, people should not be surprised if their evangelical-leaning Christian friends express strong doubts about the Pope's ability to get Israel and the Palestinian Authority to put aside their differences and share the land peacefully.

Of course, if the Pope's efforts do bring about the desired results, that will lead many conservative protestants to speculate that Pope Francis is either the Antichrist or the false prophet described in the Book of Revelation. The theory that a pope will be the Antichrist has been a persistent one in some evangelical protestant circles for several decades, so if Pope Francis is at least partly responsible for finally ending the many years of fighting over land and holy sites in Israel that may create a new schism in the Christian world as some protestant leaders do even more than they have already to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.

At the very least, if the Pope's plan works this may lead many protestants to believe the world has finally entered the last days Jesus spoke about in the Gospels and early Christian leaders such as Peter and Paul wrote about in other New Testament books. So, even if it is a good thing for Israelis and Palestinians, it may have other, less desirable consequences in the Christian world. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

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