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– Twenty-First Century Crusades?
Prediction 9: The Catholic Church getting directly involved in the “Road to Peace” process.

Pope meets Israel's Peres

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI and Israeli President Shimon Peres discussed Middle East peace efforts on Thursday, with both sides saying the atmosphere was favorable for Israelis and Palestinians to work to end decades of conflict.

Peres renewed an invitation to Benedict to visit the Holy Land during the meeting at the pontiff's summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. The president said the pope expressed his desire to visit, probably next year.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi, speaking shortly after the meeting, refused to be pinned down about any possible date.

Shortly after the meeting, Benedict held talks on the Middle East situation with the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.

It was not clear if the timing was a coincidence, but the meetings — which followed one between the pope and the Syrian vice president on Wednesday — came amid a flurry of new international diplomatic initiatives on the Middle East.

A Vatican statement said the pope and Peres discussed recent talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. It said the two expressed hope that both sides would take advantage of the "current international context that seems particularly favorable."

A U.S.-sponsored international conference is scheduled in November, and Peres told reporters Thursday, "I'm a little more optimistic than ever before because I can see a sign of light at the end of the tunnel between us and the Palestinians."

He also said that ecological issues took up a good deal of his talks with the pope, who has issued strong environmental appeals recently.

The 35-minute meeting between Benedict and Peres was the first since the veteran statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate became president in July.

In separate discussions between Benedict and al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, both men said they hoped to launch "common initiatives to favor peace," the Vatican said.

It was the first meeting between al-Faisal and Benedict. Even though Saudi Arabia doesn't have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, al-Faisal called on Pope John Paul II three times.

In a statement, the Vatican said the pope and al-Faisal discussed regional conflicts, the political and religious situation in Saudi Arabia, the defense of religious and moral values, the importance of interreligious dialogue, and the assistance of people from different religions to "promote understanding among men and people."

The Vatican has been campaigning for countries like Saudi Arabia to give greater rights to Christian minorities.

Benedict raised a similar issue in his talks Wednesday with the Syrian vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, the Vatican said.

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