In a joint ceremony May 26 at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, both Pope Francis and Israeli President Shimon Peres proclaimed their dedication to bringing peace to the Middle East, particularly in Israel, where the peace process appears deadlocked and attitudes on both sides threaten to harden.
Peres first greeted Pope Francis and his entourage, introduced him to children suffering from cancer and hosted him in a private meeting.
Then they emerged on the residence’s grounds to plant an olive tree together in the presidential garden before taking the stage, where behind them sat a choir of Jewish, Muslim and Christian children and before them sat many Israeli and foreign dignitaries and a multitude of Israeli youth.
Peres took the podium to welcome the Holy Father to Jerusalem, "which radiates faith and understands suffering."
The Israeli president said the Holy Father’s presence in Israel "raised a spiritual elation and thirst for peace."
"The values which you stand for enrich us and bring righteousness between people," he said. "The moral call remains the wisest human judgment. It has no equal."
Peres noted that Israeli society holds freedom of speech, freedom of expression and "the respect of holy sites" as "cornerstone values," including the gathered leaders. "They long to hear your words, while they are characterized by their fear of God and the love for humanity," he said. "They have come to bless you on inspiring, by your very nature, trust among the fallen and strength among the trodden — a combatant against discrimination, anti-Semitism and racism."
He also called on religious leaders to "make your voices clearly heard" and join the Pope in showing "there is no greater contradiction than that between faith and murder." He said it was their duty to help children grow up in a world "which allows each person to live as a human being," free from fear and slaughter.
Peres praised Pope Francis for trying "to create a common ground for global, regional and individual peace," and he said he believed the Holy Father’s visit and call for peace "will echo through the region and contribute to revitalizing the efforts to complete the peace process" between Israel and Palestine.
"Your visit is an important opportunity for a joint prayer to God in heaven for peace," he said.
Pope Francis then rose to take the podium after Peres’ speech and thanked him for the "words of welcome." He said he was happy to come to Jerusalem, which preserves the holy sites precious to Muslims, Christians and Jews, who "worship the God who called Abraham."
The Pope urged they be maintained and protected. "The holy places are not monuments or museums for tourists, but places where communities of believers daily express their faith and culture and carry out their works of charity," he said.
"May Jerusalem be truly the City of Peace," the Holy Father said, adding that he hoped the city would "shine forth as a treasure for all mankind," where "pilgrims and residents enjoy free access to the holy places and can freely take part in religious celebrations."
Pope Francis praised Peres as a "man of peace and a peacemaker" and expressed his admiration for "the approach you have taken" for peace.
"Peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by God and destined to eternal life," the Holy Father said. "This shared conviction enables us resolutely to pursue peaceful solutions to every controversy and conflict."
The Holy Father then renewed his appeal "that all parties avoid initiatives and actions which contradict their stated determination to reach a true agreement and that they tirelessly work for peace, with decisiveness and tenacity."
He added that this meant a "firm rejection" of everything that stands in the way of "peace and respectful relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims."
"We think, for example, of recourse to violence and terrorism, all forms of discrimination on the basis of race or religion, attempts to impose one’s own point of view at the expense of the rights of others, anti-Semitism in all its possible expressions and signs of intolerance directed against individuals or places of worship, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim," he said.
The Pope pointed out that many Christian communities "live and work" in Israel and form an integral part of its society. He said Christians reject extremism and "are committed to fostering reconciliation and harmony" and that their presence is important for Israel, but their rights must be respected.
"The presence of these communities and respect for their rights — as for the rights of all other religious groups and all minorities — are the guarantee of a healthy pluralism and proof of the vitality of democratic values, as they are authentically embodied in the daily life and workings of the state."
The Pope said that he knows the president prays for him and assured him of his prayers for him and for the state of Israel.
"I likewise assure you of my constant prayer for the attainment of peace and all the inestimable goods which accompany it: security, tranquility, prosperity — and that which is most beautiful: fraternity."
Turning his attention to the ongoing crises in the Middle East, particularly surrounding Syria, the Holy Father said he prayed that their suffering may be eased "by an honorable resolution of hostilities."
He concluded, "Peace be upon Israel and the entire Middle East. Shalom."