Pope invites leaders of Palestine, Israel to Vatican

Pope Francis pursued peace of both body and soul here Sunday, inviting the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to the Vatican to pray for peace and later embracing his own estranged Christian brother, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Representatives of the president of Israel and the Palestinian Authority said they would accept Francis’ offer, although it was questionable how productive the event could be. The Israeli presidency is largely ceremonial.

That done, Francis met Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians in more than a dozen Eastern Orthodox churches. Praying together at the traditional site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, each promised to continue work on healing the divisions that split Christianity between East and West 1,000 years ago.

“We are persuaded that it is not arms, but dialogue, pardon and reconciliation that are the only possible means to achieve peace,” they said in a joint statement.

On his second day visiting the Middle East, Francis traveled among Palestinian and Israeli adversaries, telling each they deserve to coexist as sovereign states, in a peace “based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security.”

He urged both sides “to find the courage to be generous and creative.”

And at every stop he found a way to emphasize a third theme: his distress at the continuing persecution of Christian minorities in the region.

Because Christians of many denominations are at equal risk, Francis used a phrase he has deployed before: “an ecumenism of blood.”

Despite saying last week that his trip would be strictly for religious purposes, Francis made explicit pleas for Middle East peace by word and gesture.

In a land swept by centuries of violence in the name of God and Allah, Francis deplored those who, “by exploiting and absolutizing the value of their own religious tradition, prove intolerant and violent toward those of others.”

In Tel Aviv, he told welcoming Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that while the world recognizes Israel’s right to exist and flourish, “at the same time, there must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement.”

“The ‘two-state solution’ must become a reality,” he said.

Francis will spend all day Monday in Jerusalem with a schedule demonstrating sensitivity toward Israel. He will call privately on Netanyahu, will visit the nation’s Holocaust memorial and the Wailing Wall, and will honor the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.

But Sunday in Bethlehem, his carefully calibrated concern was for Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank.

Indeed, it was there that Francis provided the most powerful moment of the trip so far.

In a dramatic gesture becoming typical of his papacy, he stopped the motorcade carrying him to Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

Francis abruptly dismounted from his open “popemobile” and, quickly surrounded by dozens of bystanders, made his way on foot to the hulking wall of concrete and razor wire separating Israel from the West Bank.

Graffiti sprayed on the wall welcomed Francis. One said: “Pope we need some1 to speak about justice.”

Beneath a military watchtower, Francis prayed silently for a few moments, his forehead touching the wall, before rejoining the motorcade to Manger Square, supposed site of Jesus’ birth.

A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said later he did not know whether Francis decided on the spot to stop his motorcade or had planned it earlier. In any case, he said, “a wall is a sign of division” that the pope wanted to confront.

Moments before, in the presence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Francis expressed solidarity with “those who suffer most” — given the context, perhaps a reference to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

And he referred explicitly to “the state of Palestine” — a term Israel rejects.

It was in remarks after celebrating Mass in Bethlehem that Francis invited Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to the Vatican.

“In this place where the Prince of Peace was born,” Francis said, “I desire to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres, to raise together with me an intense prayer to God for the gift of peace. And I offer my house in the Vatican to host you in this encounter of prayer.”

Middle East peace talks broke down again last month when Netanyahu’s office objected to a new Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organization.

Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the prayer summit would take place sometime in June, shortly before Peres leaves office.

Lombardi said the pope invited Peres instead of Netanyahu because he has a warm relationship with the president. The invitation of Peres “is not an exclusion of the other,” Lombardi said.

As expected, the meeting between Francis and Bartholomew, which began an hour late, produced no breakthrough announcement but instead a reaffirmation that their churches will continue to work toward unity.

Christianity broke in two almost 1,000 years ago over questions of theology and Rome’s insistence on primacy in governance of the entire church.

Since a breakthrough meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964, bishops and theologians of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have been in talks to evaluate their differences.

Francis and Bartholomew also jointly urged Christians to promote “an authentic dialogue” with Judaism, Islam and other religious traditions.

And, perhaps on the initiative of Bartholomew, who has displayed a sensitivity to environmental concerns, they said they “pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation.

“We appeal to all people of goodwill to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God’s world and the benefit of His people.”