Catholic Church

'People's pope' grows in stature with peace-making efforts in Middle East

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 11:53am

Pope Francis, in a mere three days, has seemingly made more progress in pushing for an end to the Middle East conflict than years of US and European mediation. The Israeli and Palestinian presidents have agreed to join him in praying for peace at the Vatican, he has tried to smooth tensions between Christians and Muslims, and he has paid homage to Jews killed during the Nazi holocaust and in terrorist attacks. Sensitive matters like the security wall Israel is building around the West Bank were broached and the trip began with a call for stepped-up efforts to end the civil war in Syria. There was more symbolism than peace-making, but given the pontiff's growing global stature, such gestures should not be discounted.

Religion is, after all, one of the sticking points to finding lasting peace. The turbulent history of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths has created deep scars and the city of Jerusalem, of great importance to all three, is central to negotiations for a Palestinian state. Representatives of the sides praying for peace at the seat of the Catholic Church can only be symbolic - Israeli President Shimon Peres has a largely ceremonial role and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, lacks widespread support. But the image alone of the three kneeling together will have an impact. So, too, does the fact that Francis, who took his name from the peace-loving St Francis of Assisi, has in just 14 months as pontiff earned a reputation as a "people's pope".

Nor should the Vatican's peace-making skills be ignored. The church has the world's oldest diplomatic service and its envoys have vast experience in behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Among its successes are stopping Argentina and Chile from fighting over disputed islands in 1978, and playing a significant part in ending Lebanon's civil war in 1990 by reaching out to militias and Muslim groups.

Expectations should not be overly high: kings, presidents and Nobel laureates have failed to bring peace to the Middle East. But nor should Francis' efforts be taken lightly; he could prove a valuable part of finding a solution.