The Come to Francis Moment in Rome: Vatican tempers expectations for Israeli-Palestinian peace prayer

Pope Francis and Israel's President Shimon Peres talk after planting an olive tree as a symbol for peace after their meeting at the president's residence on May 26.

Pope Francis' June 8 meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents will be a religious, not a political, occasion and should not raise hopes for immediate resumption of peace talks between the two nations, said the principal coordinator of the gathering. "No one presumes that peace will break out in the Holy Land after this event," Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa said on June 6, "but this is a very important initiative to reopen this road."

"We hope this will change the peoples' attitude toward trust in a future common path," said Father Pizzaballa, the Franciscan custos of the Holy Land. "The idea of this prayer is to reopen a path that has been closed for some time, to recreate a desire, the possibility, to dream in a certain sense" that peace is possible.

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The Franciscan stressed that the pope would pray alongside Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but would not discuss practical questions such as national borders or Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He said that, aside from the two presidents, no politicians would attend.

"Politicians will have to stay out," he said. "This is a pause from politics."

His remark came in response to a question about the possible presence of Hamas, the party currently governing the Palestinian territory of Gaza. Abbas' recent decision to form a unity government with Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, led to the latest breakdown in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian authority.

Father Pizzaballa, who, as custos of the Holy Land, safeguards Christian holy sites and coordinates the reception of pilgrims, helped brief reporters on details of the June 8 event, to which Pope Francis invited Abbas and Peres during his May 24-26 trip to the region.

At the ceremony, which will take place in the Vatican Gardens at 7 p.m., "we do not pray together, but we come together to pray," Father Pizzaballa said. He explained that national delegations accompanying each leader would include followers of different religions, who would observe three distinct moments of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayer for peace, in order of the religions' historical precedence.

The Jewish prayers will be in Hebrew, the Muslim prayers in Arabic, and the Christian prayers in English, Italian and Arabic.

Along with Pope Francis and the two presidents, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will be one of the "four protagonists" of the event, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.

The Orthodox patriarch, with whom Pope Francis met four times during his visit to the Holy Land, will read one of the Christian prayers during the ceremony and take part in a private meeting afterward with the pope, Peres and Abbas.

Members of the Israeli and Palestinian delegations, who will number between 15 and 20 people each, have yet to be announced, but Father Pizzaballa said Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud would take part.

Skorka and Abboud, longtime friends of the pope from Buenos Aires and leaders respectively in their city's Jewish and Muslim communities, accompanied Pope Francis during his visit to the Holy Land. The three men's embrace in front of Jerusalem's Western Wall became a widely published image of interreligious harmony.

Father Lombardi said the site of the June 8 ceremony, in a triangular section of the gardens near the Vatican Museums, was chosen because of its "neutral" appearance, lacking in religious imagery.The evening hour was chosen to avoid the midday heat, he said, and to facilitate Abbas' late arrival from Cairo, where he is scheduled to attend the inauguration of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi earlier the same day.

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