Pope Francis made himself part of the Middle East peace process Sunday when he invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to a prayer summit at the Vatican.
The invitation came at the end of an outdoor Mass celebrated by the pontiff at Bethlehem’s Manger Square, on the second day of his three-day trip to the Middle East, according to CNN. Manger Square is regarded by most Christians as the site of the birth of Jesus.
"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,” he said. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
Abbas accepted the invitation immediately.
Peres’ office issued a statement that said, "President Peres has always supported, and will continue to support, any attempts to progress the cause of peace.”
Pope Francis issued his invitation a second time during remarks to Peres and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the tarmac at the airport in Tel Aviv.
A spokesman from Abbas’ office has confirmed that the prayer meeting with the three leaders will take place on June 6, just a month before Peres is set to leave office.
During the Middle East trip Pope Francis also made his clearest statement to date on his support of a two-state solution to the current crisis. The Wall Street Journal reports he called the current situation “increasingly unacceptable”
"The time has come for everyone to find the courage … to forge a peace that rests on the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders," the pontiff said during a meeting with Palestinian leaders.
Peres has long supported a two-state solution but his position as president is largely ceremonial.
Official talks between Palestinians and Israelis broke down last month as Palestinian leaders sought to normalize relations with Hamas, a group regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel. Netanyahu said he would not negotiate with Palestinian leaders while Hamas was part of the equation. Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the upcoming prayer meeting.
David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, told the New York Times that the meeting could ease Israelis’ concerns that Palestinians have “not come to terms with the legitimacy of a Jewish state.”
“It would be naïve to think that the sight of Peres, Abbas and the pope doing anything together is going to change the world,” he said. “If you look at it in political terms, OK, insignificant, but if you look at it as an effort to foster a different mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians, psychologically, I think this is very positive.”