Pope Francis made an unprecedented bid for peace in the Holy Land on Sunday by hosting a prayer meeting at the Vatican with the presidents of Israel and Palestine Authority.
Weeks after the last round of U.S.-backed peace talks failed, Francis welcomed Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to join him, alongside Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of Orthodox Christians, for an evening of prayer and music in the Vatican gardens.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post said Pope Francis hosted a prayer meeting at the Vatican for the presidents of Israel and Palestine. The meeting was with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
In a strongly worded speech, Francis told his guests the event was a "great sign of brotherhood which you offer as children of Abraham," and blamed the failure of talks to date on the devil, claiming, "More than once we have been on the verge of peace, but the evil one, employing a variety of means, has succeeded in blocking it."
Francis, who extended the invitation during his trip to the Holy Land last month, was praised by Peres as a "bridge builder of brotherhood and peace." The meeting, Peres said in his speech, was "momentous," adding that Israelis and Palestinians were "aching for peace."
"Here we are, O God, inclined to peace," said Abbas.
The evening got underway as Francis hugged Peres and Abbas, then held separate, brief meetings with each at the residence where he lives and works at the Vatican. Peres and Abbas then met and kissed before the trio, along with Bartholomew, mounted a minibus to go to the garden. Video footage inside the vehicle showed the men smiling and joking.
A group of clerics and representatives of Christianity, Judaism and Islam awaited them on the lawn of the garden, where a string ensemble played Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings as the religious leaders arrived — music made famous by the antiwar film "Platoon."
Prayers were then said by representatives of the three faiths in order of the age of the religions, starting with Judaism, then Christianity, then Islam, as Francis, Peres and Abbas listened, sitting side by side. For each faith, three prayers were said — interspersed with music — the first thanking God for creation, the second asking forgiveness for divisions between people, and the last asking God to create peace in the Holy Land.
The meeting marked a contrast to the papacy of Francis' predecessor, Benedict, who enraged Muslims with comments made at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 2006 that were perceived as being critical of Islam.
At the end of the ceremony, the leaders and Bartholomew planted an olive tree as a symbol of peace, and headed for private talks in a Renaissance villa in the gardens.
Since Francis made what he has described as a "spontaneous" personal foray into international diplomacy by setting up the meeting, Vatican officials have been stressing that the event was not a bid to push peace talks but a "time out" from negotiations, with prayer potentially sparking a desire for peace.
Francis himself said on the plane back from the Holy Land, "I do not feel qualified to say 'Do this or this or this,' because that would be crazy on my part."
In the run-up to the meeting, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a church official in charge of Catholic sites in the Holy Land, said "No one is presumptuous enough to think peace will break out on Monday."
But on Sunday, ahead of the event, Francis said the Catholic Church should be able to "shake things up."
The event required delicate diplomacy. Francis admitted that he failed to host the meeting in the Holy Land, and the Vatican gardens were chosen because they were seen as the most neutral spot in the city-state, free of the Christian symbolism that could offend the other two faiths.
The evening touched on disputes over control of Jerusalem. In his speech, Peres said: "The holy city of Jerusalem is the beating heart of the Jewish people," while Abbas referred to "our holy city Jerusalem." The Palestinian leader also asked God to "alleviate the suffering of my people in the homeland and diaspora."
As the strings struck up at the end of the event, the three leaders and Bartholomew embraced and kissed.
Before the event, Peres, 90, said, "I hope the event will contribute to advancing peace between the parties, and in the world," but Peres steps down next month and negotiations are being steered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not attend the event and who has declined to deal with the Palestinian government, which is backed by the Islamic group Hamas.
In comments made to paramilitary officers in Jerusalem on Sunday, Netanyahu appeared to downplay the benefit of praying for peace, stating, "For thousands of years, the people of Israel have been praying for peace daily. But until peace comes, we will continue to strengthen you so that you can continue to defend the state of Israel. Ultimately, that is what will guarantee our future and will also bring peace," he said.
Francis appeared optimistic. Tweeting on Saturday, he wrote: "Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world."