Peres, Abbas to pray for peace at Vatican on June 8

Israel's President Shimon Peres answers questions at a press meeting on the first day of his official visit in Oslo on May 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Israel's President Shimon Peres answers questions at a press meeting on the first day of his official visit in Oslo on May 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas will pray for peace at the Vatican on June 8, the Holy See said on Thursday.

Pope Francis had invited the pair to his home for a "heartfelt prayer" for peace during his three-day trip to the region, and the meeting "will take place on June 8, during the afternoon," a date "accepted by both parties," the Vatican said in a note.

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

"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer... to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," he said.

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

Last month, US-led peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators collapsed in bitter recriminations.

Israel pulled out, saying it would not negotiate with any Palestinian government supported by Hamas after the leadership in the West Bank signed a unity deal with the rival Islamist rulers of Gaza, who are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

That ended a nine-month bid to reach a solution and left no political initiative on the horizon.

The Vatican said the upcoming meeting, which had to be scheduled to take place before the 90-year-old Israeli president retires at the end of July, was not going to be driven by a political agenda.

"The meeting in the Vatican is to pray together, it's not a mediation," the pope said during the return flight to Rome.

"It is a prayer without discussions," said the pontiff, who has made interfaith dialogue a cornerstone of his 14-month-old papacy.

Both Abbas and Peres had accepted the invitation during the trip, with the Israeli president saying "we would be happy to raise up prayer like this at our home, or at yours, in accordance with your generous invitation, according to your choice".

Francis said their acceptance said showed the pair "have the courage to move forward".

Peres is known for his close relationship with 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 Abbas in 2011.

The prayer comes despite protests from some quarters that Francis weighed in on the conflict during his trip in favour of the Palestinians.

While the Vatican had said the visit was strictly religious, Francis's spontaneous stop at Israel's West Bank separation barrier - where he rested his forehead on the wall in silent prayer - was seen by some as a morale boost for Palestinians.

Israel quickly moved to counter the blow with Netanyahu reportedly making a personal request for Francis to visit a national memorial for victims of militant attacks on Mt Herzl.

The Vatican rushed to limit the fallout, with spokesman Federico Lombardi insisting the impromptu stop at the graffitied wall was "a personal decision" and not a politically-motivated act.

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