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Israeli, Palestinian Leaders Agree to Vatican Peace Meeting


Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted Pope Francis' invitation to come to the Vatican and pray for peace with him.

Speaking earlier Sunday in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Francis said the time has come "for everyone to find the courage to be generous and creative" in ending "a protracted conflict that has inflicted many wounds."

He then invited the two presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for peace.

The offices of Abbas and Peres quickly confirmed that they had accepted the invitation, with the Palestinians saying the meeting would take place in June, according to an AP report.

U.S.-backed negotiations aimed at ending the conflict collapsed last month, with the Israelis accusing Abbas of sabotaging the talks by agreeing a unity deal with Hamas Islamists who run the Gaza Strip.

Francis was greeted later Sunday in Tel Aviv by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before traveling to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, the pope presided over a joint prayer service with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

In a welcome ceremony with the Israeli leaders, the pope said, "The right of the state of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders must be universally recognized.”

Francis added that "there is no other way" but to restart peace talks aiming for a two-state solution to the territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Peres replied, painting Israel as a melting pot of religions and nationalities living together.

“Israel is a Jewish and democratic state where we live in coexistence within our borders and continue to search for peace beyond them. We shall not allow anybody to violate this commitment,” he said in his own address.

Netanyahu labeled Israel an “island of tolerance.”

“Your Holiness, in the heart of the Middle East, the turbulent and violent Middle East, where Christians are often persecuted, Israel is an island of tolerance. We safeguard the rights of all faiths. We guarantee freedom of worship for all and we are committed to maintaining the status quo at the holy sites of Christians, Muslims and Jews,” he said.

Francis started the second day of his Middle East trip with a deeply symbolic decision to visit Bethlehem ahead of coming to Israel.

Previous popes have always visited the West Bank after first arriving in Tel Aviv.

Palestinian officials hailed Francis' decision to arrive first in Bethlehem, and to refer to the "state of Palestine."

Palestinian state

In its official program, the Vatican referred to Palestinian President Abbas as the president of the "state of Palestine," and his Bethlehem office as the "presidential palace."

Both Israelis and Palestinians have been trying to harness the Pope's standing as leader of the world's Roman Catholics to bolster their dueling narratives.

Francis also celebrated Mass at Bethlehem's Manger Square, near the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, before meeting with Palestinian children in Deheisheh Refugee Camp.

Saturday in Jordan, Francis held talks with King Abdullah and heard first-hand accounts of the suffering of refugees who have fled Iraq and Syria for the safety of makeshift encampments in Jordan.

The pope is to meet Monday with Peres and Netanyahu. He will also visit Israel's national cemetery, Mount Herzl, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.
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