For the past half century political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Middle East, with varying levels of political will, have used an array of instruments in an effort to broker a lasting peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. They have failed up to now, and that 66-year-old conflict continues.
On May 25, in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, Pope Francis introduced a whole new dimension into that search for peace: prayer. Intervening as a moral and spiritual leader, not a political one, he sought to break the impasse and open new horizons for peace. For this reason, he invited the presidents of Israel and Palestine to join him in the Vatican to pray for peace in their lands. “I believe prayer is important, prayer can help,” he said on the plane back from Tel Aviv to Rome, while clarifying that his aim is not mediation.
He asked the Custodian of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., to act as coordinator for the event that is scheduled to take place in the Vatican Gardens on Sunday evening, June 8.
As he watched the American attempt to broker a peace accord fail, the Argentine pope felt in his heart that he had to do something to help these two peoples emerge from the deadly cycle of violence, retaliation, war and hatred. William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, told me “the idea” for the prayer initiative came to him during the celebration for the canonization of the two popes, and he then asked Rabbi Abraham Skorka to contact Peres, and the Palestinian Ambassador to the Holy See, Issa Kassisieh, to explore the possibility with Abbas.
Francis’ original idea was to hold this prayer-for-peace in the Holy Land during his visit there. The Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem was considered as a possible venue but had to be discarded for political reasons, as was Jericho. To overcome the political obstacles, the pope offered the Vatican as the venue, and this proved acceptable.
Peres and Abbas will fly into Rome on Sunday, and join Pope Francis for the prayer session in the Vatican Gardens. The three leaders will be accompanied by their respective delegations, each with around 15 members. Full details are likely to be unveiled at the Vatican press conference, June 6.
Sources say Peres’s delegation is likely to include close advisors and probably three rabbis from Israel: Ratzon Arousi, Daniel Sperber and David Rosen. Abbas’s high level delegation includes Saeb Erekat (chief Palestinian negotiator), Nabil Aburdeneh, the former Minister for Religious Affairs, Mahmoud Habbash, the emeritus Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michael Sabbah, Father Jamal Khader and Palestine’s Ambassador to the Holy See. Pope Francis will be joined by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and several of those who formed his entourage in the Holy Land trip, including Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, some Vatican cardinals, and his Jewish and Muslim friends from Buenos Aires: Skorka and Abboud.
This prayer-for-peace initiative has provoked various reactions and raised many questions, including how is it being perceived in Israel and Palestine, and what if any follow up can be envisaged. To answer some of these questions I contacted three people living in Jerusalem: Rabbi David Rosen, Father David Neuhaus, S.J., and Bishop Shomali.
Rabbi Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of American Jewish Committee and advisor on Interfaith Relations to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, warmly welcomed the prayer-for-peace invitation. “It’s great. And if it is not just an event in itself but the beginning of something, even better,” he said.
Although he said one cannot generalize about anything in Israel, Rosen claimed that “the majority response to the pope’s initiative might be described as ‘skeptically positive’!” But if there is no follow-up, he said, it will be seen only as “a reiteration of the pope’s goodwill,” and will have “no significant impact.” On the other hand, if it results in something concrete, such as the creation of “a permanent council of the local religious authorities (supported by international religious authorities/institutions) that could prepare a charter for interreligious coexistence in the Holy Land; a joint statement on Jerusalem; and serve as support for political peace-making," then it could have maximum impact, he stated.
Father Neuhaus, S.J., the Latin Patriarchate’s Vicar for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel, said Pope Francis “surprised us all” by “his determination to communicate his message and the freedom with which he managed to do that despite the attempts of everyone here to tie him down.” He explained that “an integral part” of that message was: “let God in! Make space for God. Not the word “God” which is instrumentalized, used and abused by each side to the multidimensional conflict. Rather, the real living God.”
He summarized Francis’ message in this way: “Can you see the horizon beyond the walls that have been erected due to the conflict?” He said the invitation “to come and pray. Yes, pray, not talk politics, not negotiate” was part of that message.
That invitation “has been greeted by confusion, amazement and a little bit of mockery,” Neuhaus added, because Peres is at the end of his mandate, and many in Israel believe that the initiative will be used “in a cheaply political way.” He explained that “cheap politics, the politics that uses religion, is common here,” and “few believe that the political dimension is not again using the religious dimension. Few seem capable of understanding that perhaps the religious dimension can free up the political dimension and open up vision.”
He thinks the initiative “can only impact those in Israel who are willing to try to see and hear.” At the same time, he admitted that “it is difficult to predict what impact the image might have but it is important that this is going to take place at a time when tension is increasing and the walls blocking any horizon of possibility are higher than ever.”
Father Neuhaus is convinced that “the least that can come out of this encounter is that we as religious people and leaders might see the role of religion in the conflict,” in other words, the role religion can have “not in being mobilized by the conflict to sacralize the position of the side of the wall I live on,” but rather, “the power of religion to break open new resources of creativity and generosity.”
He said Francis “is clearly standing on the margins and crying out in a prophetic voice: Prepare the way of the Lord, but unfortunately, most religious leaders prefer to stand at the center, in the court of the king, and shout out: Prepare the way for my king, the one who pays my salary and the one whose war I bless.”
Bishop Shomali meets with Israelis and Palestinians on a daily basis, and is convinced that “Israelis are tired of war. They want peace. Israeli people, for sure, want peace. They would accept the international stand about two states.”
He believes that “praying together for peace may help Israelis” because “prayer is the best way to change the mind of a population, because praying is accepting God’s will. And God’s will in this case is peace”. Moreover, “the Lord is able to change the mind of leaders. Not all of them will change. Indeed, some of them will think that prayer is the funeral of the peace-process.”
In Palestine, he said, the pope’s initiative “has been received very positively, because the leaders as well as the people have a strong trust in Pope Francis. He is the highest moral authority in the world today as King Abdullah II said in Amman. Palestinians believe that too. Even if he doesn’t succeed completely in bringing peace, at least they know he is a reliable person and his stand can make a difference.”
“After the failure of the peace process under American mediation,” Shomali said, “Palestinian people are looking for someone who is fair, impartial, who can mediate in some way. For this reason also the invitation of Pope Francis was well accepted. They are very religious and they believe in the value of prayer; they believe that while this initiative maybe will not bring peace immediately, nevertheless they think it can lead to another step and to another step which finally will bring peace. They believe that justice and peace will come one day, but they don’t know when.”
Shomali believes that “if people of the world” can join the pope and the presidents of Israel and Palestine in praying for peace “then this will change something; at least the situation will not deteriorate. If it keeps us out of a third Intifada, then that is already a good fruit.”
At the same time he counseled patience: “one probably shouldn’t expect immediate fruits because an olive tree produces olives after five years, so maybe the prayer of today will bring us peace within six or seven years. It is never late. But praying today is a must.”