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Israeli, Palestinian leaders accept Vatican invite

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, May 25, 2014 - 8:33 am

JERUSALEM — Pope Francis took a dramatic plunge Sunday into Mideast politics while on his Holy Land pilgrimage, receiving an acceptance from the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to visit him at the Vatican next month to discuss embattled peace efforts.

The summit was an important moral victory for the pope, who is named after the peace-loving Francis of Assisi. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late April, and there have been no public high-level meetings for a year.

Francis landed in Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, in a symbolic nod to Palestinian aspirations for their own state. He called the stalemate in peace talks "unacceptable" and stopped briefly to pray at the Israeli separation barrier surrounding this biblical West Bank town.

At the end of an open air Mass in Bethlehem's Manger Square, the pope invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to pray with him for peace.

"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," he said.

The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents quickly confirmed that they had accepted the invitation.

"We welcome Pope Francis' invitation to the Vatican. President Peres has supported and will continue to support all avenues to bring about peace," Peres' office said in a statement.

Abbas' spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, said the summit would take place sometime in June.

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.

Peres has been a fervent support of Mideast peace efforts, and the independent-minded Israeli president, whose job is largely ceremonial, risks upsetting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the move.

Netanyahu has expressed anger with politicians that have reached out to Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.