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Pope Meets With Former Israeli PM Peres

Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres says Pope Benedict XVI may visit Israel in the early part of next year. He met the pope for 40 minutes at the Vatican, and said they discussed the situation in the Middle East and the peace process.

Shimon Peres issued an invitation from acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Pope Benedict to visit Israel. Peres said the pope expressed the hope that he would visit the Holy Land in the early part of 2007. He said the pope is an important moral voice in the world.

"I told him that he will be welcomed, I am sure, by all communities in Israel, clearly by the government of Israel, the people of Israel," Peres said. "And they all said it, that the visit of the late Pope John Paul II was very successful, and very meaningful, and I do believe that his [Benedict's] visit can have an impact upon the peace process, as well."

Pope John Paul II made an historic visit to the Holy Land in 2000. Pope Benedict XVI has continued his predecessor's outreach to Jews. Last summer, during his first visit to Cologne, Germany, he visited a synagogue that had been destroyed by the Nazis.

Peres said he found Pope Benedict extremely well informed about the situation in the Middle East, and also concerned about the spread of terrorism. He dismissed, however, concern that a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories would prevent the pope from visiting the region.

During the meeting, Peres said he also discussed with the pope how to improve relations between the Vatican and Israel, and access to holy sites in Israel. Peres said a dual dialogue, both political and financial, must be renewed to identify the right solution.

Israel and the Vatican have been at an impasse over a 1993 agreement concerning the tax obligation for Roman Catholic holdings, and methods to resolve property disputes. Peres said the two sides are in agreement to raise the level of negotiations, and try to conclude them as soon as possible.

On access to holy sites, Peres said that, again, the situation must be improved, so that pilgrims may always find these places friendly and attractive. Palestinian Christians often complain that they have difficulty accessing churches in Israel, including the Holy Sepulchre, and are not given the possibility to attend the Easter rite of the Way of the Cross.