At the conclusion of Pope Francis’ already surprise-ridden trip through the Holy Land last week, the first Argentinian pope turned heads by spontaneously inviting Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to visit him for a joint “prayer summit” at the Vatican. Both leaders accepted his offer, and a date was set for a meeting at the pontiff’s apartment on June 6.
The bold move by Francis — who has virtually no formal diplomatic training — rekindled hopes of reinvigorating Middle East peace talks that collapsed less than a month ago. Yet while the announcement of the summit was welcomed by many world leaders, several commentators were quick to point out that the pope’s primary goal in holding the prayer service is probably to help establish enough good will to help protect the Middle East’s Christian minority. After all, Christians, who make up 5 percent of the population in the Middle East, continue to face stiff persecution at the hands of both Jews and Muslims in the region, and Francis told members of the press last November, “We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians.” Furthermore, while Francis made waves last week for being the first pope to refer to the “state of Palestine,” the move is less surprising when demographics are taken into account: the vast majority of Catholics in the Holy Land are Arab and Palestinian.
But the pope’s focus on protecting Christians doesn’t necessarily detract from the importance of the summit, and there are still reasons to be optimistic about what Francis could accomplish at the meeting. Here are a few:
1. The pope is reclaiming religion as a positive diplomatic force.
While protecting Christian minorities is undoubtedly a motivating factor for Francis, his prayerful approach to the Middle East situation is also a reclamation of a moral weight once enjoyed by Catholicism — not to mention religion as a whole — in international politics. Rev. Tom Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, sees Francis’ delicate Middle East experiment as an example of religion functioning as a positive force in global politics, and drew special attention to the pontiff’s decision to bring a rabbi and a Muslim leader — both friends from his time in Buenos Aires — along for the trip.
“The witness of bringing with him two friends — a Muslim and a rabbi — was extraordinarily important,” Reese said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “The wonderfully iconic image of the three embracing near the Western Wall showed that religion can be a force for peace, understanding, and even friendship. In that area of the world, that’s a very important message.”
2. Religious diplomacy — when done well — is already proven to be effective.
Using religion as an international bridge-builder has worked before, including efforts led by the Catholic church: Cardinal Antonio Samorè is renowned for helping settle a dispute between Chile and Argentina that could have led to war in the early 1980s, a Catholic archbishop was killed in the early 2003 after he successfully brokered peace agreements between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Burundi, and Pope John Paul II famously used his influence to help topple communist regimes in the 1980s.
But religious nation-states like the Vatican aren’t the only ones who recognize the value of faith as a positive force for global politics. Under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. State Department shifted away from a Cold War-era style of diplomacy that often ignored religion — a holdover approach from when Russians were thought to be “Godless communists.” Instead, Clinton tasked U.S. officials with actively engaging religious leaders and their communities in other countries as part of a larger strategy to achieve better “on the ground” diplomatic results. The State Department also began highlighting effective models of religious engagement for U.S. embassies, and a new office of religious engagement — initiated under Clinton, but carried over into the Kerry administration — opened last year with the expressed purpose of strengthening the administration’s international religious outreach.
3. Pope Francis is uniquely positioned to make a difference in the Middle East, or at least better the perception of the Catholic church in the region.
It goes without saying that religion is a touchy subject in the Middle East—especially for Catholicism. Memories in the Holy Land are long, where both Muslims and Jews are quick to cite the destruction wrought by Christian crusaders who swept through the region several centuries ago. More recent missteps by the church also haven’t made things much easier for Christians in the region: the Vatican took until 1998 to issue a formal apology for the church’s inaction during the Holocaust, and Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, sparked protests throughout the Muslim world when he made seemingly disparaging remarks about the Muslim prophet Muhammad at a lecture in 2006. Add to this chronic religio-political strife between Muslims and Jews in the region, and it is easy to dismiss faith as a toxic force in international diplomacy.
Yet if there was ever a person to help reestablish faith as a point of reconciliation, it’s Pope Francis. While he isn’t the first pope to visit the Holy Land (he’s the fourth), he carries the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, a historical figure famous for his attempts to broker peace with Muslims during the crusades (the saint is still fondly remembered by many Muslims for his peaceful approach, and several Muslim leaders publicly celebrated when the pope chose Francis as his papal name last spring).
What’s more, the Holy Father, who currently enjoys soaring global popularity, has made religious reconciliation with Muslims and other religious groups a key component of his life’s ministry and his papacy. He reportedly spoke out against Benedict’s seemingly disparaging comments about Islam in 2006, offered a conciliatory message to Muslims celebrating Ramadan last year, and prayed with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians — a group with a historically testy relationship with Catholics — while in Jerusalem. Taken together, the pope appears primed to do something few other popes have been able to do: use a combination of popularity and symbolic gestures to sluff off the centuries of baggage that tarnishes the Catholic church’s clout in the region, and open the door to engaging Israeli and Palestinian leaders in religious ways that would be impossible for U.S. State Department officials to replicate.
So is the pope’s prayer summit going to lead to a lasting peace deal between Israel and Palestine? Probably not. Peres is an outgoing Israeli president with waning political power, and the Vatican continues to insist that the summit is primarily about prayer — not politics. Even if it was an explicitly political convening, it would take a lot more than one meeting in Rome to erase centuries of conflict in the Middle East. As Reese put it: “The pope is a follower of Jesus Christ—but he’s not Jesus. He can’t perform miracles. ”
Still, Francis has managed to get the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to meet in the same room, something even U.S. diplomats have had difficulty pulling off. More importantly, Francis, Peres, and Abbas represent nations where religion and politics are one and the same, so if images of the group praying together help recast religion as a point of commonality instead of conflict, that could be an important step towards a process that understands faith as a vehicle for peace instead of harbinger of war.