VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis waded head-first into Mideast peace-making Sunday, welcoming the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to the Vatican for an evening of peace prayers just weeks after the last round of U.S.-sponsored negotiations collapsed.
Israeli President Shimon Peres was the first to arrive at the Vatican hotel where Francis lives, followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Francis warmly greeted both and met privately with each one before heading out to the Vatican garden for the service.
Vatican officials have insisted that Francis has no political agenda by inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace among the two parties. But the meeting could have significance on the ground beyond mere symbolism.
"In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important," noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican."
The meeting will also cement Francis' reputation as a leader unhindered by diplomatic and theological protocol who is willing to go out on a limb for the sake of peace. Given his enormous popularity, who could say no to the first pope named for the peace-loving St. Francis of Assisi?
The unusual prayer summit was a feat of diplomatic and religious protocol, organized in the two weeks since Francis issued the surprise invitation to Peres and Abbas from Manger Square in Bethlehem.
It is taking place in the lush Vatican gardens in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica, the most religiously neutral place in the tiny city-state, and will incorporate Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian.
The prayers focus on three themes common to each of the religions: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region.
Francis, Peres and Abbas are also expected to deliver brief remarks, shake hands and plant an olive tree together in a sign of peace. Also on hand is the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, to give a united Christian front.
Vatican officials have described the prayer evening as something of a "time-out" in political negotiations, merely designed to rekindle the desire for peace through prayers common to all the main faith traditions in the Holy Land.
But even Francis' secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the power of prayer shouldn't be discounted for its ability to change the reality on the ground.
"Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don't even realize and should be exploited to the full," he said at the end of Francis' Mideast trip. "Prayer has the ability to transform hearts, and thus to transform history."
That said, no concrete results are expected: Peres has no formal role in peace negotiations, holds a largely ceremonial post and leaves office at the end of the month.
But Nadav Tamir, a political adviser to Peres, said Sunday the Israeli government authorized the trip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in "constant contact" with Peres. Speaking on Israeli Army Radio, Tamir stressed the meeting was not political, even though he said Peres and Abbas were expected to discuss political developments when they meet in private after the prayer.
Netanyahu had urged the world to shun Abbas' new unity government which took office last week because it is backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. His pleas have been ignored by the West, with both the U.S. and the European Union saying they will give the unity government a chance.
Peres' participation thus undermines Netanyahu's attempts to isolate the Palestinians, and instead adds to the growing isolation of Netanyahu's hard-line position. Netanyahu's office has declined repeated requests for comment about the Vatican summit.
Nevertheless, Tamir stressed that the meeting had a different aspect to it.
"The government of Israel decided not to hold political negotiations, but we aren't talking about political negotiations. We are talking about a different gesture, a spiritual gesture, an act of public diplomacy," Tamir said.
Abbas, for his part, told Italian daily La Repubblica that Francis' invitation was "an act of great courage."
"Nothing should stop us in the search for solutions so that both of our people can live in their own sovereign state," he was quoted as saying in Sunday's editions.