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Pope calls for end to Middle East conflict


Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the occupied West Bank, in Bethlehem, yesterday. Pope Francis made a surprise stop at the hulking wall Palestinians see as a symbol of Israeli oppression. – AFP

Bethlehem (Occupied West Bank): Pope Francis yesterday invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for peace a month after US-backed talks aimed at ending the Middle East conflict collapsed.

"I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer for the gift of peace," the pope said in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," Francis said, in what Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi described as an unprecedented papal initiative.

"All of us — especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples — have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers," the pope said.  "Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment."

Asked about the invitation, a spokeswoman for Peres said in occupied Jerusalem that he "always accepts any kind of initiative to promote peace". While Abbas heads the Palestinian government, Peres's presidential post is largely ceremonial.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined immediate comment. "This is an open invitation," Lombardi said, adding that he hoped the visit could take place before Peres's presidential term ends in July.

'Men of good will'
The invitation to "men of good will", Lombardi said, "is one of the signs of the courage and creativity of Pope Francis in his efforts to bring about peace".

Pope Francis also made a surprise stop at the hulking wall Palestinians see as a symbol of Israeli oppression, minutes after begging both sides to end a conflict that he said was no longer acceptable.

In an image set to become one of the most emblematic of his trip, a sombre-looking Francis rested his forehead against the concrete structure that separates Bethlehem in Occupied West Bank from occupied Jerusalem, and prayed silently as a child holding a Palestinian flag looked on.

He stood at a spot where someone had sprayed in red paint "Free Palestine". Above his head was graffiti in broken English reading: "Bethlehem look like Warsaw Ghetto".

On the second leg of a three-day trip to the Middle East, Francis delighted his Palestinian hosts by referring to the "state of Palestine", giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition in the face of a paralysed peace process. But, speaking in the Palestinian-run city of Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he made clear that a negotiated accord was needed, calling on leaders from both sides to overcome their myriad divisions.

Francis had flown by helicopter to Bethlehem from Jordan, where he started his tour on Saturday, becoming the first pontiff to travel directly to the occupied West Bank rather than enter via Israel - another nod to Palestinian statehood aspirations.

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