NEW: Pope Francis arrives in Tel Aviv, speaks to Israeli leaders
Pope invites Palestinian and Israeli leaders to the Vatican to pray for peace
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will go to Vatican, official says
Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomes the invitation, his office says
Pope Francis extended an invitation Sunday to the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to travel to the Vatican for a “peace initiative,” after earlier calling for a two-state solution to the intractable conflict.
The pontiff’s remarks came at the end of an outdoor Mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on the second day of his three-day trip to the Middle East.
“In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with Israeli President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace,” Francis said.
“I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
He added, “Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment. The men and women of these lands, and of the entire world, all of them, ask us to bring before God their fervent hopes for peace.”
The Palestinian side has accepted the invitation and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will go to the Vatican, a Palestinian Legislative Council member, Hanan Ashrawi, told CNN.
The Israeli President’s office said that he welcomed the invitation. “President Peres has always supported, and will continue to support, any attempts to progress the cause of peace,” his office said.
Pope Francis then traveled on to Tel Aviv, where in remarks on the airport tarmac to Peres and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he again issued an invitation to pray for peace at the Vatican. He also reiterated the Vatican’s support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.
The next stop on his historic trip was Jerusalem.
Earlier, speaking alongside Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Francis called for the recognition of a Palestinian state – but he made the same demand on behalf of the state of Israel.
He urged “the acknowledgment by all of the right of two states to exist and to live in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.”
The Pope called on all sides to pursue a path to peace together and not take unilateral actions to disrupt it.
“I can only express my profound hope that all will refrain from initiatives and actions which contradict the stated desire to reach a true agreement, and that peace will be pursued with tireless determination and tenacity,” he said.
Middle East peace talks recently stalled despite high-profile efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to push them forward.
The government of Israel has objected to unilateral initiatives by Palestinians to seek international recognition as a state, and Palestinians have objected to Israeli initiatives to expand settlements on the West Bank.
In his remarks in Bethlehem, Francis called on Abbas to protect the religious rights of Palestinian Catholics.