Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are expected to meet at the Vatican Sunday for what is being called an intense prayer session with Pope Francis.
The unexpected invitation was extended during the pope’s recent visit to the Middle East, where Francis engaged in the kind of photo opportunities that popes usually avoid. He stopped at the barrier erected around the Palestinian territories and at an Israeli memorial for victims of terrorism.
On the plane home, Pope Francis told reporters he is not getting involved in the stalled peace process.
Nonetheless, said Daniel Petri at the Catholic University of America in Washington, the invitation is a bold move.
“If something happens, it’s tremendous. Pope Francis is the miracle worker of the Middle East,” he said.
The pope is already seen as a maker of miracles by many of his followers. His prayer vigil for peace in Syria on Sept. 7, 2013, was followed by an agreement a week later that prevented U.S. air strikes over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
Christopher Hale of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has argued in Time magazine that the pope’s accomplishments in the Middle East have shown him to be the world’s best politician.
But Petri, a doctoral candidate, argued in a rebuttal that there have been tens of thousands of fatalities in the Syrian conflict, as well as new allegations of chemical attacks, since the pope’s prayer.
“To claim it a success, I think, is wrong, morally and intellectually,” he said, adding that the symbolism of the pope’s actions is what’s important.
Sunday’s prayer meeting will follow a morning Pentecost service in St. Peter’s Square. It’s far from clear that anything concrete can be offered by the two political leaders. Peres is nearing the end of his term as Israeli president, and Abbas recently swore in a unity government including Hamas, which advocates the destruction of Israel.
Short of a miracle, the main thing the Vatican prayer session can be counted on to produce is an image of a peace effort, with the pope at the center.