(Time) Itâ€™s hard to argue that Pope Francis is not the worldâ€™s best politician after his trip this past weekend to the Holy Land. In fifty-five hours, the 77-year-old Bishop of Rome visited three countries, gave fifteen addresses, planted two trees and held a groundbreaking 45-minute press conference. With a weekend full of blockbuster moments, it might be a bit audacious to say one stood out above the rest. But if there is one that will have a lasting impact on the region, it was Pope Francisâ€™s Sunday surprise.
While celebrating an open-air Mass in Bethlehem, Francis unexpectedly invited Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a June meeting of prayer and dialogue. Within an hour, both had accepted.
Francisâ€™s successful overture was especially remarkable considering the failed efforts by the United States earlier this spring to get both sides to the table to begin negotiated peace talks. However, this could be the boost that Secretary of State John Kerry needed to revive this peace process, which has been largely dormant for the past four years.
But almost immediately, commentators have tried to downplay the meeting. Daniel Levy told The New York Times that the meeting would â€œmean nothing in big-picture terms.â€ David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, added that â€œ[i]t would be naÃ¯ve to think the sight of Peres, Abbas and the pope doing anything together is going to change the world.â€ He did acknowledge, however, that the meeting would help the â€œeffort to foster a different mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians.â€
But to reduce Juneâ€™s meeting to an act of mere symbolism fails to understand the role religion can and should play in addressing difficult political and ethnic issues. Throughout world history, religious prophets have creatively navigated tense situations to advance peace and justice. Within the past century, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and St. John Paul II showed us that religious witness can win a war without raising a hand. [More]