With the Middle East often torn apart by religious disputes, it may seem a fool’s errand to seek prayers for peace from the region’s three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet on Sunday, the Jewish president of Israel and the Muslim president of the Palestinian government joined with the heads of two Christian churches in a ceremony of prayer.
Their humble pleas of faith at the Vatican are a welcome alternative to other attempts to bring peace to a troubled region. Prayer can help affirm a common purpose set by spiritual demands. “We have tried so many times and over so many years to resolve our conflicts by our own powers and by the force of our arms,” said the event’s sponsor, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church.
In his prayer, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas asked for peaceful coexistence while Israeli President Shimon Peres prayed “that soon we will live in mutual respect and good neighborliness.” Their prayers were joined by those of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the Orthodox churches. “It is my hope that this meeting will mark the beginning of a new journey where we seek the things that unite so as to overcome the things that divide,” the pope said.
One purpose of prayer is to open the heart of an individual to others, an act of love that mirrors God’s love. From that, listening begins. Then dialogue and perhaps a mutual recognition of each other’s fears and hopes. In the case of Israelis and Palestinians, a faith-based dialogue can ease tensions by reducing ignorance and stereotypes. It can lead to more people-to-people exchanges and bring moderation in negotiations toward a peace settlement.
The idea for the prayer meeting may have started last year when Mr. Peres visited the Vatican and invited the new pope to Israel. During Pope Francis’s trip in May, he invited the Palestinian and Israeli leaders to join him for a “private” get-together of prayer at the Vatican.
Taking radical steps for reconciliation is not a new idea in the modern Middle East. In the 1970s, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt made a historic offer of peace with Israel. In the 1990s, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin took a courageous step in negotiating the Oslo accords that set up the Palestinian Authority.
In March, a group of 27 Palestinian students bravely visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, hoping to understand how the Holocaust became the basis for the creation of modern Israel. They were led by Mohammad Dajani Daoudi, a professor at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem who advocates a spirit of conciliation and moderation in Israel-Palestinian disputes.
Once a fighter for the Palestinian cause, Dr. Dajani changed his views in the 1990s after witnessing the kindness of Israeli doctors in treating the illnesses of his parents. “I became confused about my enemy, who did their best to help my father and my mother,’’ he told The New York Times. In his academic courses, Dajani teaches the virtues of the three Abrahamic religions.
In their respective prayers at the Vatican on Sunday, the four leaders read from their sacred texts, touching on topics such as creation, forgiveness, and, of course, peace. The meeting was timely, coming after months of fruitless diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority led by US Secretary of State John Kerry. This summit of prayer serves as a reminder that peacemaking can only begin, one heart at time, by acknowledging the divine source of the human desire for peace.