JERUSALEM (CBSNewYork/AP) — Pope Francis took a dramatic plunge Sunday into Mideast politics while on his Holy Land pilgrimage, receiving an acceptance from the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to visit him at the Vatican next month to discuss embattled peace efforts.
The summit was an important moral victory for the pope, who is named after the peace-loving Francis of Assisi. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late April, and there have been no public high-level meetings for a year.
Francis landed in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. He called the stalemate in peace talks “unacceptable” and stopped briefly to pray at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding this biblical West Bank town.
At the end of an open air Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the pope invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray with him for peace.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer,” he said.
The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed that they had accepted the invitation.
“We welcome Pope Francis’ invitation to the Vatican. President Peres has supported and will continue to support all avenues to bring about peace,” Peres’ office said in a statement.
Abbas’ spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the summit would take place sometime in June.
Peres, a 90-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, is set to step down over the summer, and the meeting would take place shortly before he leaves office.
Peres has been a fervent support of Mideast peace efforts, and the independent-minded Israeli president, whose job is largely ceremonial, risks upsetting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the move.
Netanyahu has expressed anger with politicians that have reached out to Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.
“I’m a firm believer that every conflict comes to an end,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Park East Synagogue in New York told CBS 2’s Dick Brennan.
Schneier, who was in Jerusalem to meet the pontiff, said peace takes time.
“It’s not an instant,” he said. “In America, we like to drink instant coffee. Everything instant. That’s not history. It’s an evolving process that has to be nurtured.”
Rabbi David Rosen said Francis’ outreach for peace could make an impact.
“He’s the pope. If he can’t do it, who can?” Rosen said.
“That kind of visible photo opportunity could send a message the pope could perhaps create something, some momentum.”
In the meantime, New Yorkers flocked to see the pope and other religious giants gathered in Israel.
“I figured this is Memorial Day weekend. It’s my opportunity to get them both together. That’s why I’m in Jerusalem,” said former New York City mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis. “That why I’m in Jerusalem.”
Also, Sunday, the pope and the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians prayed together Sunday inside the Jerusalem church that symbolizes their divisions, calling their historic meeting a step toward healing the centuries-old Catholic-Orthodox schism.
Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I embraced one another in the stone courtyard outside the 12th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher and recited the “Our Father” prayer together once inside, an unprecedented moment of solemnity at the spot where Catholic and Orthodox believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
The encounter, punctuated by haunting Greek and Latin chants, was full of symbolic meaning: The two men, both in their mid-70s, helped one another down the stone steps leading into the church, grasping one another’s forearms. And after Bartholomew delivered his remarks, Francis bent down and kissed his hand in remarkable show of papal respect for a patriarch when some 500 years ago a patriarch was forced to kiss the feet of the pope.
The evening prayer service was the spiritual highlight of Francis’ three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land and capped a momentous day in which the Israeli and Palestinian presidents accepted Francis’ invitation to join him at the Vatican next month to pray for peace.
Francis has said his primary reason for coming to the region was to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Their 1964 embrace ended 900 years of mutual excommunication and estrangement sparked by the Great Schism of 1054, which split Christianity.
Since that meeting, the two churches have grown closer in personal friendships and even theological dialogue, but core differences remain, including over the primacy of the pope.
Tellingly, Francis referred to Paul not as pope but as “bishop of Rome” — the other main title attributed to popes and the way Francis introduced himself to the world on the night he was elected pope in a clear gesture toward his Orthodox “brothers.”
Bartholomew, for his part, called for their meeting at Christ’s tomb to show how fear, religious fanaticism and hatred of people of other faiths and races can be overcome by love. “The message of the life-giving tomb is clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions.”
The site of their meeting could not have been more significant: Perhaps no other piece of real estate on Earth symbolizes the divisions of Christianity than the Holy Sepulcher, where six Christian denominations practice their faith, yet occasionally come to blows in jealously guarding their turf and times of worship.
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