Pope Benedict gave his support and prayers to a major peace conference that will gather in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, tomorrow, seeking steps toward a sustainable solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
At the end of a Mass celebrated with the 23 new Cardinals he has recently appointed, the Pope, head of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged everyone to join in the day of prayer organised by US bishops for Annapolis.
The pontiff called for the gift of "wisdom and courage" for all those who take part in the event.
Benedict declared: "Let us pray so that God may bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians and the gift of wisdom to all the participants when they meet for the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis." The Pope repeated this message when he addressed pilgrims gathered for the Angelus in St Peter's Square."
"Next Tuesday in Annapolis, in the United States, Israelis and Palestinians with the help of the international community will try to re-launch the negotiating process in order to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict that has brought bloodshed to the Holy Land and tears and suffering to the two peoples," the Pope continued.
He said: "I call upon you to join the day of prayer organised for today by the Bishops' Conference of the United States in order to beseech God's Spirit to grant peace to this region so dear to us and give wisdom and courage to all participants in this important meeting."
Both hope and scepticism has been deployed in anticipation of the Annapolis event. This morning, former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, a well-known neocon hardliner, used an interview with the BBC plugging his new book to launch an extraordinary attack on the event.
He said that he wished it had not been allowed to happen, since it only illustrated the diminishing role of the United States. Mr Bolton is in favour of military action rather than diplomacy, and also took the opportunity to advocate selectively bombing Iran over its nuclear development programme.
However, former Middle East Council of Churches' executive director Dr Harry Hagopian, in an article published on the website of religious think tank Ekklesia, while sanguine about substantial blocks to progress, including the attitude of the US, takes a constructive view of the Annopolis opportunity.
He declares: "Those issues that need to be hammered out include land, borders and territorial withdrawals (which would also deal with new and expanding settlements with well over 200,000 settlers, let alone the parameters of the separation wall), the future of Jerusalem (including the Old City that hosts many religious sites precious to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike), water, security guarantees for both sides and refugees."
Dr Hagopian adds: "However, what remains the hardest nut to crack is the matter of the over 4 million Palestinian refugees who would wish to see an implementation of the Right of Return."
His own prescription, amid fears that the conference may sink like its predecessors with deleterious consequences, is that: "[O]ne signal way forward is for Israel to accept the Arab / Saudi offer made at the Arab Summit of 2002 that traded full withdrawal from occupied territories by Israel with recognition of Israel by all Arab states."
Dr Hagopian's article may be found at: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6335