Pope hails 'courage' of Israeli, Palestinian presidents

Pope hails 'courage' of Israeli, Palestinian presidents
File photo of Pope Francis.

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Monday praised the "courage" of Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas after both agreed to come to the Vatican to pray with him for peace.

Abbas and Peres "have the courage to move forward", Francis told reporters on his return flight from a three-day trip to the Middle East that was packed with powerful symbolism but with politics never far behind.

"The meeting in the Vatican is to pray together, it's not a mediation," the Argentinian pope stressed of the "prayer summit" scheduled for June 6, after both Peres and Abbas accepted his surprise invitation issued on Sunday.

"It is a prayer without discussions," said the pontiff, who has made interfaith dialogue a cornerstone of his 14-month-old papacy, He had stated the three-day trip would be "purely religious" but waded into sensitive issues, praying at the controversial West Bank separation barrier in another unscripted move which the Palestinians saw as a silent condemnation of the Israeli government's policies.

Francis, 77, on Monday capped his diplomatic high-wire act with a mass at a contested Jerusalem site where he made an impassioned call for an end to religious intolerance, saying believers must have free access to sites they consider sacred within the Holy City.

Heckled by youths

A visibly tired Francis celebrated the last public mass of his visit at the Upper Room on Mount Zion, in which Jesus is believed to have held the Last Supper.

Vatican efforts to negotiate greater rights for Christians to access the Upper Room have sparked angry and sometimes violent opposition from nationalist and Orthodox Jews, who revere part of the building as the tomb of King David.

Police were called to the Church of the Dormition, about 30 metres (yards) from the Upper Room in the Mount Zion compound, to probe an arson attack carried out shortly after the pope celebrated his mass.

Touring the holiest sites in Jerusalem's walled Old City early Monday, he issued a call for the three religions to "work together for justice and peace" as he was shown around the Al-Aqsa compound, the third holiest site in Islam which Jews also consider sacred.

At the Western Wall, the holiest site at which Jews can pray, he left a note in between the ancient stones before sharing an emotional embrace with two close friends travelling with him, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Islamic studies professor Omar Abboud.

Watching from a distance were a handful of ultra-Orthodox youngsters who shouted : "Tragedy, horrible!" in Yiddish.

'Eloquent and clear message'

During Francis's tour, which also took in Jordan, he spoke out against anti-Semitism and made unscheduled stops which were seized upon as political capital by Israel and the Palestinians.

In Bethlehem he surprised his entourage by hopping out of his white open jeep to touch and briefly pray at Israel's towering concrete separation barrier which cuts through the West Bank city in what the Palestinians hailed as an "eloquent and clear message".

Israel says the barrier, which it began building in 2002, is crucial for security. Palestinians see it as a land grab aimed at stealing territory they want for a future state.

On Monday, he made a surprise stop at an Israeli memorial for victims of militant attacks, reportedly at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request.

In Jordan, the pontiff appealed for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, before flying to Bethlehem, in what was seen as a nod towards Palestinian statehood aspirations.

On his flight back to Rome, Francis also warned there were "no privileges" for bishops when it came to child sex crimes and said he would hold a special mass with victims next week in the Vatican.

Francis also said that the celibacy of priests is not a matter of Church dogma, apparently leaving the door open to debate on the subject.

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