VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis on Sunday told the Israeli and Palestinian presidents that they "must respond" to their people's yearning for peace in the Middle East and find "the strength to persevere undaunted in dialogue".
The pope made his vibrant appeal to Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas at the end of an unprecedented prayer meeting among Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Vatican gardens that marked the first time the two presidents have met in public in more than a year.
Peres and Abbas embraced in the foyer of the Vatican hotel where Francis lives, joked together and sat on either side of Francis for an hourlong invocation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers in the Vatican gardens.
Francis told the two men, who signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993, that he hoped the summit would mark "a new journey" toward peace.
"Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation; yes to sincerity and no to duplicity. All of this takes courage, it takes strength and tenacity," the pope said.
Francis said seeking peace was "an act of supreme responsibility before our consciences and before our peoples" and noted that millions around the world of all faiths were praying together with them for peace.
"We have heard a summons, and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence, and to break it by one word alone: the word 'brother'," he said.
He said the children who have been the innocent victims of wars and conflicts made the search for peace an imperative.
"The memory of these children instils in us the courage of peace, the strength to persevere undaunted in dialogue, the patience to weave, day by day, an ever more robust fabric of respectful and peaceful coexistence, for the glory of God and the good of all," he said.
In his strong speech in Italian, Francis called for respect for agreements and rejection of acts of provocation. "All of this takes courage, it takes strength and tenacity," he said.
Francis, who made the surprise invitation to the two leaders during his trip to the Holy Land last month, said that the search for peace was "an act of supreme responsibility before our consciences and before our peoples" and noted that millions around the world of all faiths were praying with them for peace.
The pope spoke after Jewish rabbis, Christian cardinals and Muslim Imams read and chanted from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran in Italian, English, Hebrew and Arabic in the first such inter-religious event in the Vatican.
At times the chanting made it seem that participants were in a synagogue or outside a mosque in the Middle East rather than a primly manicured triangular lawn, a spot the Vatican chose as a "neutral" site with no religious symbols.
The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. Only the two key protagonists are technically on opposite sides of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During his prayer, Abbas prayed to Allah "to bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence".
Abbas made a few political points, saying Palestinians craved peace as well as "dignified living" and "freedom in our sovereign and independent state."
"We want peace for us and for our neighbors," he said, according to his prepared text.
Meanwhile, Peres, 90, deviated from his prepared remarks in the garden to add a personal note as his term as Israeli president comes to an end.
"I was young. Now I am old," he said. "I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families - parents and children - who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for generations to come.
"Let's all of us join hands and make it happen," he said.
Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that Israel is trying to isolate Abbas.
"In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important," noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. "And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican."
The meeting has also cemented Francis' reputation as a leader unhindered by diplomatic and theological protocol who is willing to go out on a limb for the sake of peace. Francis capitalized on both his own enormous popularity and the peace-loving heritage of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, to bring the two sides together.
The unusual prayer summit was a feat of diplomatic and religious protocol, organized in the two weeks since Francis issued the surprise invitation to Peres and Abbas from Manger Square in Bethlehem.
It took place in the lush Vatican gardens in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica, the most religiously neutral place in the tiny city-state. It incorporated Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers, delivered in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Italian and with musical interludes from the three faith traditions.
The prayers focused on three themes common to each of the religions: thanking God for creation, seeking forgiveness for past wrongdoing and praying to God to bring peace to the region.
At the end of the event, the pope, the two presidents and Patriarch Bartholomew then planted an olive tree and members of each delegation shook hands as music played. The four later held private talks for about 20 minutes before the two presidents left the Vatican.
Vatican officials have described the prayer evening as something of a "time-out" in political negotiations, merely designed to rekindle the desire for peace through prayers common to all the main faith traditions in the Holy Land.
But even Francis' secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has said the power of prayer shouldn't be discounted for its ability to change reality.
"Prayer has a political strength that we maybe don't even realize and should be exploited to the full," he said at the end of Francis' Mideast trip. "Prayer has the ability to transform hearts and thus to transform history."
That said, no concrete results are expected: Peres has no formal role in peace negotiations, holds a largely ceremonial post and leaves office at the end of the month.
But Nadav Tamir, a political adviser to Peres, said Sunday the Israeli government authorized the trip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in "constant contact" with Peres. Speaking on Army Radio, Tamir stressed the meeting was not political, even though he said Peres and Abbas were expected to discuss political developments when they meet in private after the prayer.
Netanyahu has urged the world to shun Abbas' new unity government which took office last week because it is backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. His pleas have been ignored by the West, with both the U.S. and the European Union saying they will give the unity government a chance.
Peres' participation thus undermines Netanyahu's attempts to isolate the Palestinians and instead adds to the growing isolation of Netanyahu's hard-line position. Netanyahu's office has declined repeated requests for comment about the Vatican summit.
Nevertheless, Tamir stressed that the meeting had a different aspect to it.
"The government of Israel decided not to hold political negotiations, but we aren't talking about political negotiations. We are talking about a different gesture, a spiritual gesture, an act of public diplomacy," Tamir said.
Reuters, AFP and the Associated Press contributed to this report.