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Pope Appeals to Israel, Palestinians for Concrete Steps Toward Peace - 2003-12-11

Pope John Paul II has called on Israel and the Palestinians to take concrete steps toward peace. The pontiff met privately with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at the Vatican Thursday. Vatican observers see the meeting as a sign of thaw after several weeks of frosty exchanges between the Holy See and the Jewish state.

The meeting between John Paul II, and the Mr. Shalom lasted 20 minutes in the pope's private study in the apostolic palace. The pope called for concrete acts of reconciliation from all sides in the Middle East conflict to break the current impasse in the peace process.

The Vatican's chief spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, said little afterward, beyond stating the Israeli foreign minister and the pope exchanged their views on the path to Middle East peace. He added that the pope insisted on the need to emerge from the present deadlock.

The chief of policy staff for the Israeli foreign minister, Ron Prosor, said the pope showed keen interest in the state of Israel during the meeting. He said the talks addressed the problem of anti-Semitism and the need to combat it. Mr. Shalom also held talks with the Vatican's secretary of state and new foreign minister.

The high level meetings were the first since the pope criticized Israel last month for constructing a security barrier in the West Bank.

Israel reacted angrily when the pope described the barrier as a new obstacle to peace, and said that the Middle East does not need walls, but bridges. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon replied that Israel has all the intentions of building bridges, but not, as he put it, on the bodies of the civilian victims of Israel.

Mr. Sharon, contrary to the usual practice, did not request a meeting with the pope when he visited Rome last month.

The Holy See recognized Israel in 1993, and the two established diplomatic relations a year later.