BETHLEHEM, Palestine: Pope Francis on Sunday invited the Israeli and Palestinian presidents to come to the Vatican to pray for peace a month after U.S.-backed talks aimed at ending the Middle East conflict collapsed.
"In this, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in heartfelt prayer to God for the gift of peace," the pope said at a Mass in Bethlehem.
"I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer," Francis said, in what Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi described as an unprecedented papal initiative.
"All of us - especially those placed at the service of their respective peoples - have the duty to become instruments and artisans of peace, especially by our prayers," the pope said. "Building peace is difficult, but living without peace is a constant torment."
The offices of the Israeli and Palestinian presidents later confirmed that they had accepted the Pope's invitation to visit the Vatican together next month.
The 90-year-old Peres, who is stepping down this summer, has been a fervent supporter of Mideast peace efforts. His decision risks upsetting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is angry about outreach efforts by other politicians at a time when Abbas is reconciling with the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The invitation to "men of good will", Lombardi said, "is one of the signs of the courage and creativity of Pope Francis in his efforts to bring about peace".
Netanyahu broke off peace talks last month after Abbas signed a reconciliation deal with one of Israel's most bitter enemies, the Hamas Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip.