By TIMES OF ISRAEL—
Newly installed Pope Francis accepted an invitation from President Shimon Peres to visit Israel, as the two leaders held their first meeting on Tuesday.
The pope accepted the offer ”with willingness and joy,” a Vatican spokesman told reporters.
No date has been set for the trip, which would be the second for the pontiff, who visited in October 1973, at what turned out to be the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
Francis would try to find time to visit “in the near future,” the President’s Office said in a statement.
“The sooner you visit the better as in these days a new opportunity is being created for peace and your arrival could contribute significantly to increasing the trust and belief in peace,” Peres said.
He added that Israelis saw Francis as a “leader of peace and good will.”
“I am sure that you will be received warmly by all the citizens, regardless of religion, race or nationality.” He said. “I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel.”
Peres’s visit with Francis at the Vatican on Tuesday was the first by an Israeli leader since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March.
Peres and Francis discussed several Middle East issues, including the civil war in Syria and the state of talk between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during the talks, which the Vatican described as “cordial.”
“A speedy resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is hoped for, so that, with the courageous decisions and availability of both sides as well as support from the international community, an agreement may be reached that respects the legitimate aspirations of the two peoples, thus decisively contributing to the peace and stability of the region,” the Vatican said in a statement. “Reference to the important issue of the city of Jerusalem was not overlooked.”
Peres said that he was pleased to hear Tuesday’s announcement by the Arab League that it would integrate the idea of a “minor” land swaps into the Arab Peace Initiative.
“You have an important role in progressing peace and the belief in it, I turn to you and ask that within your sermons in front of millions of believers in the world you include the hope for peace in the Middle East and the whole world,” Peres told the pontiff.
Pope Francis expressed his hope that Israel and the Palestinians would soon return to the negotiating table.
Peres first invited Francis to Israel in March, immediately after his election, calling on the pope to visit as a spiritual and not political leader.
Both of the current pontiff’s immediate predecessors visited Israel, Benedict XVI in 2009 and John Paul II in 2000. Peres has already invited the pope to visit Israel, in what would be Bergoglio’s second visit to the Holy Land. Bergoglio visited in 1973, arriving just as the Yom Kippur War broke out.
During the meeting, Francis denounced anti-Semitism, which he said went against Christian beliefs.
“Anti-Semitism goes against Christianity – as pope I will not tolerate any expression of anti-Semitism,” he said.
In addition to his meeting with Pope Francis, Peres met on Tuesday with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
According to a communique released by the President’s Residence earlier this week, in consultations with Italian leaders, Peres will “discuss in depth the Iranian threat, increasing the economic and diplomatic sanctions against Iran, European involvement in the peace process, and strengthening the strategic, technological and economic relations between Israel and Italy.”
Peres will also use his visit to meet with leaders of the Jewish community in Italy and senior business leaders. He will receive an honor in the city of Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi, after whom the new pontiff took his name.
After asking the pope “to pray for us all,” Peres told him that “I shall go to Assisi and pray for you.”