Pope Francis underscored his desire for Middle East peace, Sunday, welcoming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's President Shimon Peres to the Vatican for an evening of peace prayers just weeks after the last round of U.S.-sponsored negotiations collapsed.
Peres and Abbas — veterans of a peace process that began more than two decades ago but remains stalled — embraced in the foyer of the Vatican hotel where Francis lives, joked together and sat on either side of Francis for an hourlong invocation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers in the Vatican gardens.
Francis told the two men who signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993 that he hoped the summit would mark "a new journey" toward peace. He said too many children had been killed by war and violence, and that their memory should instill the strength and patience to work for dialogue and coexistence.
"Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare," he said. "It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict."
The Vatican encounter was not intended to launch any new peace process. That much was clear from its participants: Abbas is the senior executive decision maker in the Palestine Liberation Organization in which capacity he negotiates with Israel, although his Fatah organization's unity agreement with Hamas envisages democratizing the PLO. (Hamas, thus far, has opposed the U.S.-led negotiations in which Abbas has engaged.) Peres, meanwhile, is — and for only a few more weeks — Israel's president, an entirely symbolic position with no role in executive decision-making in that country's parliamentary political system.
Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. "In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important," noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican."
Perhaps, although Peres and Abbas have maintained an ongoing dialogue for years, even when the Palestinians were not in talks with Israel's government.
The unusual prayer summit was organized in the two weeks since Francis issued the surprise invitation to Peres and Abbas from Manger Square in Bethlehem.
It took place in the lush Vatican gardens in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica, the most religiously neutral place in the tiny city-state. It incorporated Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian and with musical interludes from the three faith traditions.
The prayers focused on three themes common to each of the religions: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region.
At the conclusion, Francis, Peres and Abbas shook hands and planted an olive tree together in a sign of peace. Also on hand was the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, to present a united Christian front.
That such symbolic affirmations of a desire for peace are required at this point, 21 years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, is a reminder order of the long-term paralysis in which the peace process is now locked. Secretary of State John Kerry's most recent attempt to revive the stalled process finally collapsed this past spring.
The Vatican's own secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, offered an optimistic taking, saying the power of prayer shouldn't be discounted for its ability to change reality.
"Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don't even realize and should be exploited to the full," he said at the end of Francis' Mideast trip. "Prayer has the ability to transform hearts and thus to transform history."
Although no concrete results were expected from the encounter, Nadav Tamir, a political adviser to Peres, said Sunday the Israeli government authorized the trip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in "constant contact" with Peres. Speaking on Israeli Army Radio, Tamir stressed the meeting was not political, even though he said Peres and Abbas were expected to discuss political developments when they meet in private after the prayer.
Netanyahu has urged the world to shun Abbas' new unity government which took office last week because it is backed by Hamas. But Western powers including the U.S. have ignored those pleas, noting that the government is composed of technocrats whose task is to run the Palestinian Administration, and which has no role in determining Palestinian political and diplomatic decisions.
Some Israeli commentators saw Peres' participation as undermining Netanyahu's attempts to isolate Abbas over the unity agreement, but Netanyahu's office has declined repeated requests for comment about the Vatican summit.
"The government of Israel decided not to hold political negotiations, but we aren't talking about political negotiations," said Tamir. "We are talking about a different gesture, a spiritual gesture, an act of public diplomacy."
Abbas, for his part, told Italian daily La Repubblica that Francis' invitation was "an act of great courage."
"Nothing should stop us in the search for solutions so that both of our people can live in their own sovereign state," he was quoted as saying in Sunday's editions.
Al Jazeera and the Associated Press