Israeli President Shimon Peres warned Pope Francis Tuesday that the Middle East is “disintegrating” and said the pontiff “has an important role” to play in bringing peace to the region and the world.
During their half-hour conversation, Peres said the Middle East is in “real existential danger” and cited the severe lack of employment, of food and water. He warned that if these problems are not resolved, “violence and terror will gain a central place, as dangerous weapons fall into the hands of extremists.”
In a statement, the Israeli government said the Pope suggested creating “a global meeting of hope” made up of heads of all the world's faiths who would speak out “against violence and terror.” They also said the Pope condemned anti-Semitism, saying it goes against the beliefs of Christianity and that it “must be opposed in every country in the world and every corner of the globe.”
Peres officially invited the Pope to visit Israel at the meeting, saying any such visit should take place “soon.”
But the Vatican did not mention these points of discussion, preferring instead to state that Peres and the Holy Father held cordial talks at the Vatican, during which they expressed hopes for a “speedy resumption” of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Vatican statement said the two leaders discussed the political and social situation in the Middle East, and hoped for “courageous decisions” and “support from the international community” so that a peace agreement may be reached.
Such an agreement, they said, must respect “the legitimate aspirations of the two Peoples, thus decisively contributing to the peace and stability of the region.”
The “important issue” of the City of Jerusalem “was not overlooked,” the statement added, and particular concern was expressed “for the conflict that plagues Syria.”
The two leaders also discussed “a number of issues” concerning Israel-Holy See relations, and between “state authorities and the local Catholic communities”.
One particular issue is expected to have been an Israeli court verdict last week which ruled that Israel’s controversial separation barrier would be built through the Cremisan Valley, effectively cutting off the Palestinian Christian community living there.
The decision has been roundly opposed: the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land (ACOHL) called it an “unjust decision” and appealed to Israel to change the route of the wall along the “Green Line”. “We remind Israeli decision-makers that the expropriation of lands does not serve the cause of peace and does not strengthen the position of the moderates,” ACOHL said in an April 30thstatement signed by Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal.
During Peres’ meeting with the Pope, mention was also made of “significant progress” in the Bilateral Working Commission talks. The statement said an agreement regarding issues of common interest “was appreciated and its rapid conclusion is foreseen.”
Peres spoke of the danger of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme and Syria’s “huge quantities of chemical weapons.” He told the Pope that Iran “must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and that Syrian chemical weapons must not fall into irresponsible hands.”
But he welcomed the recent meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Arab League foreign ministers in Washington. He also expressed hope for talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the leadership of Abu Mazen who, he said, is a “genuine partner for peace.”
Peres praised Pope Francis for his example, noting his humility and pursuit of peace. “You have an important role in progressing peace and the belief in it,” he said. “I turn to you and ask that within your sermons in front of millions of believers in the world you include the hope for peace in the Middle East and the whole world."
He said the Pope’s leadership “creates a new spirit of hope for peace, of dialogue between nations and of the promotion of a solution to global poverty and illiteracy.”
“Sadly, there are many religious leaders in the Middle East and across the world who advocate terror and bloodshed and do so in the name of the Lord,” he said. “We all have an obligation to stand up and say, in a loud and clear voice, that the Lord did not give anyone the authority to murder and carry out bloodshed. Your voice has a great impact in this matter."
Since his election, Pope Francis has made a point of appealing for peace in the region.
Peres took the opportunity to officially invite Pope Francis to visit his country. “I am expecting you in Jerusalem and not just me, but all the people of Israel," he told the Pope. “The sooner you visit the better as in these days a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace."
Speaking to reporters after the audience, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Pope “would be happy to go to the Holy Land,” but he added no concrete plans have yet been made. Last week, Fr. Lombardi advised the media “not to expect other trips abroad this year” apart from his visit to Rio de Janeiro in July.
Peres’ invitation to the Pope to visit Israel comes just weeks after Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople personally invited Pope Francis to visit Jerusalem.
The patriarch suggested that he and the Pope meet in the city in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic breakthrough in Catholic-Orthodox relations when Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras met there in 1964.