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Francis to Host Peace Talks in Vatican

palestinian israeli flagPope Francis surprised the world at the end of yesterday's Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square when he invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine to the Vatican to pray together for peace. Even more surprising is that both leaders accepted!

“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace”, said the Pope at the conclusion of the Mass. “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer”.

He went on to say: “All of us want peace. Many people build it day by day through small gestures and acts; many of them are suffering, yet patiently persevere in their efforts to be peacemakers. All of us – especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples – have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers. Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace”.

Fox News is reporting that although the meeting, which will take place next month, is largely symbolic, the quick acceptance by both parties reveals how the immensely popular new pope is able to use his charisma to be a moral force for peace in the world.

With the 90 year-old Nobel Peace laureate Peres set to step down this summer, the meeting will come shortly before he leaves office. Peres' position is largely ceremonial and he has no real authority to negotiate peace, but accepting the invitation does risk upsetting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian leaders were only too happy to accept the invitation, especially after Francis chose to visit Palestine before stopping in Tel Aviv, which is the customary route for papal visits. They were also pleased to note that the Vatican program for the visit referred to the "state of Palestine", something that has thus far only been recognized by the UN.

It wasn't the only unscripted moment in the whirlwind tour of the Holy Land. Francis also surprised his hosts when he stopped to pray at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding Bethlehem and briefly donned the black and white checkered headscarf that is considered to be a symbol of the Palestinian cause.

Even though the Vatican insisted this trip was "strictly religious", the pope has not been shy about addressing the politics of the centuries' old conflict between Palestine and Israel.

While standing alongside Abbas at the welcome ceremony, Francis pointedly declared: "The time has come to put an end to this situation which has become increasingly unacceptable. . . . The time has come for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative in the service of the common good," he said, and urged both sides to refrain from any actions that would derail peace.

In his remarks, Abbas said he was concerned about the breakdown of recent talks and let the pope know he was open to any help he might want to lend.

"We welcome any initiative from you to make peace a reality in the Holy Land," Abbas said. "I am addressing our neighbors -- the Israelis. We are looking for the same thing that you are looking for, which is safety, security and stability."

After extending the invitation to the two leaders, the pope prayed the Regina Coeli and commended the Holy Land into the care of the Mother of God.

“To Mary we entrust this land and all who dwell here, that they may live in justice, peace and fraternity”, he said. “We entrust also the pilgrims who come here to draw from the sources of the Christian faith – so many of them are also present at this Holy Mass. Mary, watch over our families, our young people and our elderly. Watch over those who have lost faith and hope. Comfort the sick, the imprisoned and all who suffer. Watch over the Church’s Pastors and the entire community of believers; may they may be 'salt and light' in this blessed land. Sustain all educational initiatives, particularly Bethlehem University . . . From this place I embrace with affection the Christian faithful living in Galilee and I  . . . entrust the future of our human family to Mary Most Holy, that new horizons may open in our world, with the promise of fraternity, solidarity and peace”.

After Mass, the pope dined with Palestinian families and visited a Palestinian refugee camp before flying by helicopter to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport for the last leg of his trip.

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