Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Sunday hosts an unprecedented joint peace prayer in the Vatican with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in a symbolic gesture aimed at fostering dialogue.
Abbas said he hoped the event in the Vatican Gardens at 1700 GMT, which will include Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers and the planting of an olive tree by all three leaders, would "help Israel decide".
"The pope's invitation was courageous," Abbas said in an interview with the La Repubblica daily.
"With this prayer we are sending a message to all believers of the three major religions and the others: the dream of peace must not die," he said.
Peres, who is 90 years old and will be stepping down as president next month, was quoted by his office as saying on Sunday: "The spiritual call (for peace) is very important and affects reality.
"I hope the event will contribute to promoting peace between the two sides and throughout the world," he said, adding that the conflict is "both political and religious" and "religious leaders resonate".
He defined it "an unusual call for peace"...
Speaking to thousands of followers in St Peter's Square, Francis pointed to the two colonnades around the plaza and said they were like "two arms which open to welcome but do not close again to imprison".
Francis earlier admitted it would be "crazy" to expect any Vatican mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but said prayer might help.
In a tweet from the pope's @pontifex account on Saturday, Francis said: "Prayer is all-powerful. Let us use it to bring peace to the Middle East and peace to the world."
The Vatican has defined the meeting as an "invocation for peace" but has stressed it will not be an "inter-religious prayer", which would have posed problems for the three faiths...
The choice of the Vatican Gardens as a location is also significant since it was considered the most neutral territory within the Vatican City, with none of the Christian iconography that might be seen as offensive to the other two faiths.