Pope Francis prays with presidents Peres and Abbas
During his visit last month to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, Pope Francis did what popes are supposed to do - listen intently to both sides, look earnest with furrowed brow and pray for the peace of Jerusalem. But this pope went further: he extended an extraordinary invitation to President Shimon Peres of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to attend a prayer meeting at the Vatican. Not to debate land or borders, or talk about prisoner exchanges, or terrorism, security, bombings or mutual feelings of injustice. It was to be a prayer summit focusing on God, not politics. There would be no spiritual coercion, no political objective and no expectation of temporal breakthrough: just three men - a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim - on their knees before their Creator seeking guidance, wisdom and enlightenment.
“It is my hope that this meeting will mark the beginning of a new journey where we seek the things that unite, so as to overcome the things that divide,” Pope Francis said.
No doubt the world scoffs at such a vacuous gesture: if umpteen meetings at Camp David over many decades poring over Middle-East nitty-gritty can't bring peace, there's not a lot of hope for a prayer meeting at the Vatican which studiously avoids any of the detailed points of dispute. But the Israeli-Palestinian peace process cannot be resolved without dialogue, and this prayer summit did, at least, bring both sides together.
The thing is, when you're on your knees before God, you tend to be honest. If your mouth utters 'occupation' while the heart dwells on 'cohabitation', God knows your hypocrisy. If your lips avoid all mention of 'Israel' while the heart and mind acknowledge its legitimacy, God sees the deception. And if you describe Jerusalem as "our Holy City" while you're plotting with Hamas to threaten and terrorise its inhabitants, God weeps at the duplicity. You can run rings around American presidents, but you can't mock God.
President Abbas reportedly prayed for a “sovereign and independent state”, because Palestinians are “craving for a just peace, dignified living and liberty”.
President Peres invoked Scripture: “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
Pope Francis exhorted both to listen to the heart of God and the deepest desires of their peoples: "Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities," he said.
And so, while the world's political leaders weigh up the prospects for peace in the context Israel's centrists, moderates and liberals confronted by Fatah-Hamas unity, a pope and two presidents pray for peace. Significantly, Jewish rabbis intoned from the Torah in Hebrew; Christian cardinals read from the New Testament in Italian and English; and Muslim Imams chanted from the Qur'an in Arabic. Yes, Islamic prayers at the Vatican. This is the first such multi-faith ecumenical event to be held under the aegis of St Peter's, which became simultaneously a church, a synagogue and a mosque.
"We have heard a summons and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence, and to break it by one word alone: the word 'brother'," Pope Francis said, as the presidents listened in humility.
Of course, we are dealing with thousands of years of history woven through with theology. But where there are no expectations, there can be no recriminations.
His Grace has long held the view that peace will not come to the Middle East until profound theological differences are acknowledged and addressed, for they run far deeper than the political. There can be no political solution to this dispute until there is a theological solution. There will be no peace in the world until there is peace between the world’s religions. Presidents and prime ministers can preach and proclaim, but only a pope can pontificate. Inter-religious dialogue is the cornerstone of peace in this region. As His Grace wrote (prophetically?) in 2009:
Cranmer can think of no better solution to the Israel-Palestine problem than religio-political mediation. And it would be preferable to have a credible, theological heavyweight do this (His Holiness) than a superficial lightweight who knows little (Tony Blair).