Israeli, Palestinian leaders say yes to Pope Francis' invite for joint prayers

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli President Shimon Peres on Monday accepted an invitation from Pope Francis to go to the Vatican for a joint prayer for peace with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas.

"Your coming to the Holy Land is an important opportunity for joint prayer," he said.

"We will be happy to raise up prayer like this at our home, or at yours, in accordance with your generous invitation, according to your choice," Mr Peres said, turning to look directly at Francis as he spoke.

Despite expectations Pope Francis would steer clear of the thorny politics of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Argentine pontiff had on Sunday extended a personal invitation to the two men at the end of a mass in Bethlehem.

"I wish to invite you, president Mahmud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," Pope Francis announced.

"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," he said.

"Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment."

Mr Abbas on Sunday accepted the pope's invitation saying he would go to the Vatican on June 6, a senior Palestinian official said, but although Mr Peres' office welcomed the invite, they stopped short of saying whether or not he would accept.

The 90-year-old Israeli president, who is due to retire at the end of July, is known for his close friendship with Mr Abbas and has frequently pushed for a peaceful resolution of the decades-long conflict.

Earlier this month, he told an Israeli television channel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had blocked a peace agreement he had secretly negotiated in Jordan with Mr Abbas in 2011.

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