He issued the surprise, joint invitation after landing in Bethlehem, in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. In another unscripted moment, he prayed at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding the West Bank town and briefly donned the checkered black and white headscarf that is a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
Jubilant Palestinians cheered the Pope as he arrived in Bethlehem’s Manger Square yesterday shouting “Viva al-Baba!” or “Long live the Pope!” Giant Palestinian flags in red, white, green and black, and the Vatican’s yellow and white flags decorated the square.
At the end of Mass in the square, the Pope invited Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli president Shimon Peres to pray with him for peace, saying: “I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer.”
The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed that they had accepted the invitation, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would take place next month.
The invitation – and the acceptances – were unexpected, given the Pope’s insistence that his three-day visit was a “strictly religious” pilgrimage to commemorate a Catholic-Orthodox anniversary. But it showed that the Pope has been able to channel his immense popular appeal to be a moral force for peace, even though the proposed meeting will be largely a symbolic affair.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down late last month, and there have been no public high-level meetings for a year.
Mr Peres, a 90-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, is set to step down over the summer, and the meeting would take place shortly before he leaves office.
Mr Peres has no authority to negotiate peace, but he nonetheless risks upsetting prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the move.
Mr Netanyahu has expressed anger with politicians that have reached out to Mr Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organisation.
Palestinian officials hailed the Pope’s decision to arrive first in Bethlehem – as opposed to Tel Aviv – and to refer to the “state of Palestine.” In its official programme, the Vatican referred to Mr Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine”, and his Bethlehem office as the “presidential palace”.
“It’s a blessed day,” said Samar Sakkakini, 52, a Palestinian-American from Canton, Michigan, who attended the Mass in Manger Square.
“Coming to Bethlehem and flying to Bethlehem from Jordan shows solidarity with the Palestinian people, which is wonderful. We need that.”