(Vatican Radio) At a press conference in the Vatican on Friday, the head of the Holy See’s press office, Fr Federico Lombardi, and the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, announced details of a prayer encounter to be held on Sunday with the presidents of Israel and Palestine. Also attending the event will be the spiritual leader of the Orthodox world, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Pope Francis invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the encounter on May 25th during his brief but intense visit to the Holy Land. Philippa Hitchen reports….
“Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment.” Those were Pope Francis’ words to the Israeli and Palestinian presidents when he invited them to come to the Vatican to join him in “heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace.” Both leaders immediately accepted that invitation and will be arriving in the Vatican around 6.30pm on Sunday evening, accompanied by delegations of about 20 people representing the different faith communities present in both states. Also taking part in the Vatican delegation will be the Orthodox Patriarch who played such a central role in the Pope’s recent pilgrimage to Jerusalem to recall a similar encounter between their predecessors exactly half a century ago.
Following a brief welcome in the Casa Santa Marta where he lives Pope Francis will accompany the two presidents and the patriarch through the Vatican gardens to a specially prepared venue surrounded by two tall hedges between the Pontifical Academy of Sciences building and a wing of the Vatican museums. Fr Lombardi explained that each faith community will present a piece of music, then thank God for the gift of creation, ask forgiveness for sins committed and pray for the gift of peace. Pope Francis and the two presidents will add their own calls for peace in the region, before exchanging greetings, planting an olive tree as a visible symbol of their desire for an end to the conflict and sharing a moment of private conversation together.
Answering journalists’ questions about the aim of the encounter, Fr Pizzaballa said it is a purely religious event designed to provide space for people to stand back from the conflict and “recreate a desire for change”. While the meeting will not lead to any overnight solutions to the complex problems of the Middle East, Fr Pizzaballa said he hoped it might just reopen a path of dialogue and allow people to dream of a world where peace really is possible.