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Praying for peace

Christoph Strack / gswJune 9, 2014

The Middle East peace process has been put on ice, but presidents Peres and Abbas made a gesture of unity in the Vatican. It's a moment that offers a glimpse of what could be, writes DW's Christoph Strack.

Papst Franz Mahmoud Abbas Shimon Peres Gebetstrefen in Vatikan
Image: Reuters

It was arguably Israeli President Shimon Peres who delivered the most fitting statement. When the 90-year-old met and embraced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican, both men said - almost sheepishly - that they were glad to meet with another. "Against all norms," as Peres quickly added.

The two presidents' meeting in the Vatican was indeed against all norms. It also ran counter to all of the political maneuvering and disillusionment of those who have worked for decades to achieve a just form of peace between Israelis and Palestinians - and who have failed due to ideology and power plays, who have grown faint of heart after terror strikes and violence perpetrated by the stronger parties. And all three - Pope Francis as the host as well as the two presidents - made history with the 90-minute encounter. When has an imam ever prayed there, and when has a rabbi?

"The pope? How many divisions has he got?," Stalin is famously said to have quipped in reference to the Catholic Church's power and influence. On Sunday evening, there were sure to be a few members of the Swiss Guard on hand in the Vatican's garden, but certainly no divisions. Hosting this event, which had never taken place in this form before, allowed Francis a grandiose way of connecting with the power of big symbols - an approach for which the recently canonized John Paul II also stood during the Cold War.

'A break from politics'?

Pope Francis announced this meeting in Bethlehem two weeks ago, saying it should be about peace, not about politics - a "break from politics." Ultimately, the pope, Peres and Abbas took to the podium one after another to address their gods, respectively, and give expression to their desire for peace. Palestinian President Abbas explicitly mentioned the word Judaism and closed with "Shalom pace, salem aleikum."

Christoph Strack Redakteur im DW Hauptstadtstudio
DW's Christoph StrackImage: DW

Certainly, a prayer is just a prayer. It's easy to dismiss or mock the gesture - particularly with respect to a region in which Islamist suicide bombers and riotous settlers regularly claim to be acting in the name of God or religion. But Francis is positioning himself in that good Christian tradition of praying "for" something - in this case, for peace.

"Establishing peace requires courage. Much more courage than pursuing war," the pope said, adding that it's about saying "yes" to negotiation and "no" to violence - a "yes" to being upstanding and a "no" to deceitfulness. The pope issued an appeal to become architects of peace.

Incidentally, it can also be considered sensational that the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, acted as a host at the event alongside Pope Francis. It's a sign of unanimity between the pope and patriarch that has never been shown at this level in the 1,000 years since the schism of their churches.

Enduring images

The images from Sunday evening are strong, wonderful pictures. They will endure, and they will have an impact - in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, but also, for example, in the US, or in Europe. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Peres with the wisdom of age, and Abbas as a serious political leader - both peacefully united and surrounded by rabbis and imams. The more that Francis and the Vatican's spokesman stressed in advance that the meeting would be a purely religious event, the clearer its political resonance became.

Both sides knew that - and tried to get in on the act early on. Just after Pope Francis announced the meeting between the presidents - to the surprise of the international community - Palestinians were advertising the appointment as being on June 6. That date would have been precluded for Israel's president, since it was a Friday on which the Jewish Sabbath begins. Meanwhile, on the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is said to have tried to stop the outgoing president Peres from meeting with Abbas. Netanyahu again announced the building of new settlements in light of the formation of a joint Palestinian government, following an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Erecting buildings against a two-state solution here, and praying for peace there.

Ultimately, there was a touch of tragedy in the events that unfolded in the Gardens of the Vatican City. Surrounded by many important men and just a few women, there was the 77-year-old Francis, the 74-year-old Bartholomew, the 79-year-old Abbas and the nearly 91-year-old Peres. The successor to Peres, whose term ends in July, will be elected on Tuesday. Four old men spoke of children's hope for peace and planted two olive trees - plants that symbolize peace in the monotheistic religious tradition.

People should have no illusions: the next round of violence and the next escalation will certainly arrive in the so-called Holy Land. But this Roman evening served as a reminder that another path could be taken.