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Pope To Host Peres And Abbas For Peace Meeting


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Today in Rome, a historic prayer ceremony - Pope Francis is being joined by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, for a special ceremony designed to try to give life to new peace talks in the Middle East. Francis extended the surprise invitation during his recent visit to the region.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us now on the line from Rome. Sylvia, so what kind of ceremony is this expected to be - an interreligious event?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Well, the Vatican is calling it an invocation of peace. It's the first time a pope has invited leaders of two nations in conflict to the Vatican to pray for peace. Briefing reporters on Friday, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who's the church official in charge of Catholic sites in the holy land - he indicated that the planning has been a delicate balancing act of religious and diplomatic protocol.

It's not going to be a common prayer, he said, but three separate prayers - Jewish, Christian and Muslim with musical interludes. And it will not be an interreligious prayer because President Abbas, the Palestinian leader, and President Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, are political leaders, not representatives of their faith.

The event will take place in a quarter of the Vatican Gardens chosen for its neutrality. There are no religious images in the vicinity. And the evening hour - it doesn't start until 7 p.m. - was chosen to avoid the heat of the day and to accommodate Abbas' late arrival from Cairo where he's attending the inauguration of Egyptian President Abdel El-Sisi.

MARTIN: And this prayer ceremony is taking place after Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed. So even though the event today carries a lot of symbolism, what are the expectations, Sylvia, that it can actually yield real change - that it can get the two sides back to the negotiating table?

POGGIOLI: Oh, well, the prospects are extremely poor. Israel, just Wednesday, approved plans to build nearly 1, 500 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And on Monday, the Palestinian Authority swore in a new government, which is backed by Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization.

Pope Francis himself described this as a meeting of prayer, not a mediation for seeking solutions. He told reporters on the plane returning from the Middle East, we are meeting only to pray, and then everyone will go home.

Father Pizzaballa said this is an exclusively religious moment. He stressed that the makeup of the two delegations accompanying Peres and Abbas will be made up of religious and civic representatives. He called the event a pause from politics.

Nobody thinks peace will break out on Monday. The intention of the initiative, he said, is to reopen the road that has been closed for some time, to re-create a desire, a possibility - to make people dream.

Now it's important, also, to stress that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the key Israeli decision-maker, and he's not going to be here. And President Peres is essentially a lame-duck. His term ends in July, putting him out of the political picture completely.

MARTIN: This is not Pope Francis' first foray into international politics. Last year, he came out strongly against Western intentions to attack the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. So are we seeing a more interventionist Vatican diplomacy?

POGGIOLI: Well, this is the first Latin-American pope and the first non-European pope. And he certainly comes with much less baggage than his predecessors. And he has certainly changed very much the way the Vatican has behaved on the international stage. He's showing a policy that's much less aligned with the Western powers. He's forging, probably, a new kind of policy for the Vatican and carving out a new global role for his papacy.

MARTIN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thanks so much, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.