ROME – In the run-up to Sunday’s keenly anticipated prayer summit bringing the Israeli and Palestinian presidents together with Pope Francis, the Vatican is doing everything it can to play down expectations that any concrete breakthroughs might result.
The event is actually “a pause from politics,” said Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a Franciscan priest based in the Middle East, during a Vatican briefing on Friday. The pontiff asked Pizzaballa to organize the details of Sunday’s event.
“Anybody who has even a minimum understanding of the situation would never think that as of Monday, peace will break out,” said Pizzaballa, saying the pope’s only ambition is to “open a path.”
“There’s no expectation that this will dramatically change the politics of the Middle East,” he said, calling it an “exclusively religious” moment.
Pope Francis announced his invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him for a prayer for peace on May 26, during the pope’s three-day trip to the Middle East. It’s the first time a pope has invited the leaders of two nations locked in a conflict to join him for prayer.
At the time, the pope himself tried to set the bar low in terms of what the summit might produce.
“It will be a meeting of prayer, not a mediation or for seeking solutions” to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” he said during an airborne press conference on his return flight.
“We are meeting only to pray,” the pope said, “and then everyone will go home.”
Officially, the Vatican is calling Sunday’s summit an “invocation for peace.” It’s being held late in the evening on Sunday to accommodate Abbas, who will be arriving from Cairo after attending the swearing-in ceremony of the new Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
In addition to Abbas and Peres, the pontiff also invited Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, traditionally considered “first among equals” in the world of Orthodox Christianity, to join the summit.
Two Argentinian friends of the pope, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud will also take part. They also joined the pope for his Middle East trip.
In response to a question as to whether members of the Hamas political faction, who now form part of the new Palestinian government will attend, Pizzaballa said there will be no government officials present other than Abbas and Peres (and therefore no Hamas).
Recognizing that the sensitivities involved in the event aren’t just diplomatic but also theological, there won’t be a single common prayer Sunday night in which all four men will take part, but rather three separate prayers representing the three religions represented – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
That way, Pizzaballa said, it will be possible is “to avoid any forms of syncretism,” referring to blending elements of different religions.
“They won’t be praying together,” Pizzaballa said. “They will be together in order to pray.”
Pizzaballa also said the event is not an instance of “interreligious prayer,” because Abbas and Peres are offering their prayers as the leaders of the Palestinians and the Israelis, not as representatives of their faiths.
Abbas and Peres are expected to arrive separately about a half-hour apart, joining Francis and Bartholomew at the Domus Santa Marta, the hotel on Vatican grounds where the pontiff resides. All four men will then go by to a car to a lawn in the Vatican gardens where the prayer service will take place.
Scriptural texts from each religion will be read aloud, along with prayers and musical interludes. At the end, Francis will offer his own invocation for peace and will invite Abbas and Peres to do the same.
When the service ends, Abbas and Peres are expected to join Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew for a handshake and in planting an olive tree to represent the hope for peace.
Francis will hold brief private meetings with Abbas and Peres separately before the service, while afterwards all four leaders are expected to hold a joint conversation in a nearby building that serves as the headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Lombardi ruled out any other meetings between the pope and the two leaders while they’re in Rome.
Peres’ term as the Israeli president, a largely ceremonial role, expires in July. He’ll become a lame duck as of Tuesday, when the Knesset elects his successor.
Beyond the politics of the Middle East, the presence of Bartholomew lends the event intra-Christian significance.
Meeting Bartholomew was the official motive for Francis’ trip to the Middle East, to commemorate an historic summit between a pope and a patriarch 50 years before that led to the lifting of mutual excommunications between Eastern and Western Christianity that dated to 1054.
Francis and Bartholomew led a joint prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Christians believe Jesus was buried, pledging their churches to deeper cooperation. Bartholomew also recently unveiled a proposal for a joint gathering in 2025 in Nicaea, in modern-day Turkey, to commemorate a famous council of bishops held there in 325 that defined the core principles of Christian belief.
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