Islamic and Jewish prayers were held for the first time ever at the seat of Catholicism on Sunday, as the Israeli and Palestinian presidents came to pray with at the Vatican
Pope Francis hopes the event, attended by the presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud, will "re-create a desire, a possibility" to rekindle the Middle East peace process.
Peres was the first to arrive at the Vatican hostel which is the Pope's current residence, and he was shortly followed by Abbas, with the two Middle East leaders embracing and sharing a smile. They were greeted warmly by the Pope, and held a short private meeting separately with the Pontiff, before the service began in the Vatican garden, in the shadow of St Peter's Basilica.
Prayers were delivered in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Italian, with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians also in attendance.
Despite the historic significance of the event, Vatican officials were keen to play down expectations. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a Church official, said: "No one is presumptuous enough to think peace will break out on Monday. The intention of this initiative is to re-open a road that has been closed for some time, to re-create a desire, a possibility, to make people dream."
Francis told the two men, who signed the Oslo peace accords in 1993, that the summit marks "a new journey" toward peace, with too many children had been killed by war and violence. Francis, Peres and Abbas then shook hands and planted an olive tree together in a sign of peace.
"Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare," he said. "It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict."
Abbas told La Repubblica: "Nothing should stop the search for solutions so that each of our peoples can live in a sovereign state."
The meeting comes just months after the demise of US-led peace talks, and the beginning of a new unity Palestinian government which includes Gaza-ruling party Hamas, which Israel designates as a terror group. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend the pray meeting, but Nadav Tamir, a political adviser to Peres, told Army Radio on Sunday the Israeli government authorised Peres' trip and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in 'constant contact' with Peres.
He stressed that the visit was not political, though added that the subject of peace is likely to have come up when the pair met privately in the city state. "The government of Israel decided not to hold political negotiations, but we aren't talking about political negotiations," he said. "We are talking about a different gesture, a spiritual gesture, an act of public diplomacy."
Abbas told Italian daily La Repubblica that the invitation was "an act of great courage".
"Nothing should stop us in the search for solutions so that both of our people can live in their own sovereign state," he said.
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down in late April and there have been no high-level meetings for a year. The Pope spent time with both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, as well as Christians on both sides of the Green Line during his trip last month.
The prayer session is unlikely to have much political ramification for Peres. The 90-year-old Nobel peace laureate has come to the end of his presidential term, and will not serve another.
The leading candidate to take his place is 74-year-old former Knesset Speaker Reuben “Ruby” Rivlin from the governing Likud party and endorsed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement.
Rivlin is a dedicated opponent of Palestinian statehood, and were he to win the election, the office of President would no longer be a podium for championing the peace process, as it has been under Peres, the country's leading proponent of the two-state solution.