Pope meets Israel's president Reuven Rivlin amid tensions

Pope Francis listens to Israel's President Reuven Rivlin as they exchange gifts during a private audience in the Pontiff's private library at the Vatican, Sept 3, 2015
Pope Francis listens to Israel's President Reuven Rivlin as they exchange gifts during a private audience in the Pontiff's private library at the Vatican, Sept 3, 2015PHOTO: EPA

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was received by Pope Francis for the first time on Thursday in what could be seen as a bid to ease tensions raised this year by the signing of a historic first accord between the Vatican and Palestine.

The Vatican said the "cordial discussions" addressed "the political and social situation in the Middle East, affected by several conflicts, with special attention to the condition of Christians and other minority groups".

Pope Francis stressed the "urgency of promoting a climate of trust between Israelis and Palestinians" as well as "the resumption of direct negotiations" for "an agreement respecting the legitimate aspirations of the two populations".

The Vatican also said that "the importance of inter-religious dialogue was recognised, along with the responsibility of religious leaders in promoting reconciliation and peace".

Mr Rivlin, accompanied by his wife, spent half an hour with the Argentine pontiff before meeting the Vatican's Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, according to journalists present.

The pope presented Rivlin with a bronze medallion made up of two separate parts united by an olive branch, the symbol of peace, with the words "seek that which unites, overcome that what divides" inscribed on it.

The Israeli president gave Pope Francis a gift made of basalt featuring a verse from a Psalm, telling the pope: "I thought it was right to remember the common origin of Judaism and Christianity".

It was the first meeting between the new Israeli head of state and the pope, who had established a relationship of trust with Mr Rivlin's predecessor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres.

"I met a man who carries a new message for the world in his ability to act as a bridge, in his ability to see each person as a person, regardless of their religious beliefs," Mr Rivlin said.

His spokesman said the two leaders discussed several issues including "the urgent need to rebuild confidence as a prerequisite to the renewal of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians."

He quoted Mr Rivlin as saying that he had told the pontiff that "I see in him a bridge, and asked of him to serve as such in the most difficult of places for mediation, where there no trust exists between the parties." Relations between Israel and the Vatican were strained in June by the signing of a historic first accord between the Church and Palestine, two years after the latter was officially recognised by the Vatican as a state.

Tensions have been further raised by attacks by extremist Jews on Christian churches and protests in a Palestinian Christian town near Bethlehem against renewed work on Israel's West Bank separation barrier.

Among the other hot-button issues raised were the rising wave of anti-Semitism worldwide, Mr Rivlin's spokesman said.