VIDEO

Palestinian president Abbas invites pope to Middle East

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (front, left) during a private audience in the pontiff library at the Vatican, on Oct 17, 2013. Mr Abbas during a Vatican audience on Thursday invited Pope Francis to the Middle Ea
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (front, left) during a private audience in the pontiff library at the Vatican, on Oct 17, 2013. Mr Abbas during a Vatican audience on Thursday invited Pope Francis to the Middle East, saying he would "walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ". -- PHOTO: REUTERS

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during a Vatican audience on Thursday invited Pope Francis to the Middle East, saying he would "walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ".

Speaking to Vatican foreign affairs official Dominique Mamberti after the talks, he said: "It was a pleasure and I invited him to the Holy Land".

Mr Abbas gave the pope a ceramic panel with a view of Bethlehem and a Bible as gifts, while Francis gave him a decorative pen with which Mr Abbas said he hoped to sign a peace agreement with Israel.

"Soon, soon," the pope responded.

In a formal invitation letter, Mr Abbas said: "A message of peace would truly bless the Palestinian people and give them renewed hope that their prayers are being heard." He said a visit would be "timely and of great significance".

Israeli President Shimon Peres also invited Francis during a visit earlier this year and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to be received by the pope on Wednesday next week.

Pope Francis has already said he would like to travel to the Middle East but the Vatican has not confirmed the trip, despite a report by Israel's Channel 2 television that it will take place in March.

Pope Francis has said he would like to visit with patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

Mr Abbas is the fourth Middle East leader to meet Pope Francis after Mr Peres, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and King Abdullah of Jordan.