Israeli President Shimon Peres warned Pope Francis Tuesday that the Middle East is “disintegrating” and that 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.”
An Israeli government statement said Peres spoke of the danger of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program 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.”
Peres welcomed the recent meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Arab League foreign ministers in Washington. He expressed hope for talks between Israel and the Palestinians under the leadership of Abu Mazen who, he said, is a “genuine partner for peace.”
In its statement, the Vatican said Pope Francis and Peres expressed hopes for a speedy resumption of peace talks and an agreement that draws on “courageous decisions” and the support of the international community. A resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would contribute to peace and stability throughout the region, the Vatican said.
The Israeli statement said Pope Francis suggested creating “a global meeting of hope with the heads of all the world’s faiths and to come out against violence and terror.” The Pope also 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,” the Israeli statement continued.
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,” Peres 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.”
Peres took the opportunity to officially invite Pope Francis to visit Israel.
“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 that no concrete plans have been made. Last week, Lombardi said Francis’ only trip abroad this year would be in July to Rio de Janeiro and to his homeland of Argentina.
Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI made visits to the Holy Land, each viewing the destination as crucial. Not only does the Holy Land hold obvious historical significance to the Church, but all sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict recognize the Church’s pivotal role in peace building.
The Catholic Church also is keen to offer encouragement to Christians who have been fleeing the region in large numbers. Over the past 13 years, the Christian population in the Holy Land has halved, with most leaving because of insecurity, hardship and poor prospects.
Since his election, Pope Francis has made a point of appealing for peace in the region, most notably in his Easter address. He also chose the papal name of Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for his peacemaking efforts and his famous dialogue with the sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil. The Franciscans have been the official custodians of the Catholic Church’s Holy Sites in the region ever since.
Peres’ invitation comes just weeks after Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople personally invited Pope Francis to visit Israel.
The patriarch suggested that he and the Pope meet in Jerusalem 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.
This article appeared in Newsmax, 30 April 2013
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