Pope Francis welcomed Israeli President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine to the Vatican on Sunday, in a move that many news sources are calling unprecedented. The three men met to pray for peace, signifying, at least symbolically, a step toward conflict resolution in the Middle East.
The gathering raised some eyebrows but garnered wide support, a reaction that has come to define Pope Francis' reign.
The New York Times reported, "The prayer summit came at a fraught political moment. Less than a week ago, a new Palestinian government was sworn in that is based on a pact with Hamas, the militant Islamic movement branded as terrorist by most of the West. Israel has officially shunned the new cabinet."
The biggest shock seemed to be that the meeting happened this quickly. The Associated Press reported that it has only been two weeks since Pope Francis issued the invitation.
But the shortened timeline didn't stop Vatican organizers from successfully orchestrating an interfaith service with no shortage of potential controversies. In the past, popes have been criticized for actions that were thought to threaten the primacy of the Catholic church.
"Sunday's event solidified a Vatican recipe for making prayer with the followers of other religions theologically acceptable," explained The Boston Globe. "To be sure, there were plenty of precautions. There was no single moment of joint prayer ... but rather three separate prayers for Jews, Muslims and Christians."
"The prayers focused 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," reported the Associated Press.
The AP's article quoted Pope Francis as saying, "Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. ... It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict."
Perhaps most importantly, the prayer service re-established the pope as an important figure in international politics. According to the Boston Globe, "(Pope) Francis' popular appeal and political savvy have thrust the Vatican back onto center stage. After Sunday it is hard to imagine any global conflict in which the question will not eventually arise, 'When is the pope going to step in?'"
Sunday's prayer gathering follows closely behind the pope's much-publicized pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in late May. The Atlantic's Emma Green reported that the trip, like this weekend's summit, was about promoting peace, not politics.
Green wrote, "Over and over again throughout his trip, the pope repeated these themes: unity with those of theological kinship, condemnation of the persecution of Christians [and] dialogue as a means of preventing violence." Bringing together the presidents of Israel and Palestine solidified Francis's commitment to those goals.
Pope Francis also met recently with a delegation of religious and political leaders from the United States, who travelled to Rome to promote interfaith understanding. Deseret News National reported about the group, which included Senator Mike Lee of Utah.
It's no surprise that managing international tensions and travelling widely are exhausting pursuits. Religion News Service reported that advisers have urged the 77-year-old Pope Francis to slow down this summer, suggesting a well-deserved vacation.
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