ROME — During an unprecedented Vatican summit on Sunday, Pope Francis led the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian territories not only in shaking hands but also in a prayer for peace and in planting an olive tree, saying he hoped the symbolism would be “the beginning of a new journey.”
The pope styled the unique gathering as “exclusively religious” but also as an expression of hope for an end to one of the world’s most protracted conflicts.
In his comments, Francis was direct: “Peace-making calls for courage, much more so than warfare.” According to the pontiff, only the tenacious “say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation.”
Francis last month issued an invitation to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him in the Vatican for a prayer. He made the offer May 25, during his three-day trip to the Middle East. Both men quickly accepted.
The summit, which is a first for the Vatican, is almost universally seen as unlikely to have any immediate effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It comes after the Palestinians formed a new unity government backed by Hamas, which is viewed by the Israelis as a terrorist organization. It also follows an announcement by the Israeli government that it had approved almost 1,500 new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which was seen by the Palestinians as a provocation.
Peres had the approval of the Israeli Cabinet to travel to Rome, but he holds a largely ceremonial post and will leave office at the end of the month.
Undaunted, Pope Francis hosted Sunday’s “invocation for peace” in the Vatican gardens in hopes of “reopening a path that had been closed,” as a spokesman put it.
Shortly before the service began, the pontiff welcomed each president separately. He first greeted Peres, and 20 minutes later Abbas arrived at Santa Marta, the pope’s residence.
As they headed to join Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Orthodox Christian leader, the two presidents put differences aside and welcomed each other with a friendly hug. Afterward, the four shared a short drive to the Vatican gardens.
Recognizing the theological differences among those gathered, there was no common prayer. Scriptural texts from each religion were read, along with invocations of forgiveness and peace.
After the three prayers and their corresponding musical interludes, the pope gave a short speech.
His message was clear: Leaders cannot renounce their responsibilities in the process of building peace, but “history teaches that our strength alone does not suffice. That is why we are here, because we know and we believe that we need the help of God.”
After the pope’s message, Peres expressed his wish to have true peace as his legacy: “Let us all raise a call for peace between religions, nations, communities, and between fellow men and women.” Quoting the Book of Psalms, he requested that peace be sought every day.
Lastly, Abbas prayed for the Holy Land, but he expressed his particular hope of having peace in the city of Jerusalem, so it can become a safe “place of worship for the followers of the three monotheistic religions,” meaning Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Bartholomew did not offer his own invocation because the pontiff acted as the Christian representative.
The patriarch did, however, refer to this summit in a service he celebrated Sunday morning in Rome’s Orthodox church of Saint Theodore, calling Francis “the world’s greatest ambassador of peace.”
Bartholomew said the prayer summit was a great effort by Pope Francis to bring peace to the Middle East.
Francis’s initiative Sunday has roots earlier in his career. In 2000, when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentinian planted an olive tree in Buenos Aires, joined by a rabbi, a Muslim leader, and a Christian orthodox cleric.
On the flight back from Jerusalem to Rome, Francis gave the journalists traveling with him an insight for this unlikely gathering: “This prayer meeting will not be for mediation or to find solutions. We are just meeting up to pray. Then everyone goes home.”
Just as he was during the trip to the Holy Land, the leader of the Catholic church was joined by two of his Argentinian friends: Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud.
Inés San Martín is the Globe’s Rome correspondent.