Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas extended an invitation to Pope Francis to visit the region, while meeting with the pontiff in The Vatican on Thursday.
“I invited him to the Holy Land,” Abbas was quoted by Reuters as saying after a half-hour meeting with Francis.
The two discussed the peace process, Syria and difficulties facing Christians in the Palestinian territories, according to a Vatican statement.
The pope is already reportedly planning a trip to Israel, after several entreaties by officials from Jerusalem. He recently told Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that he would visit, saying emphatically “I’ll come! I’ll come!”
Press reports have indicated Francis may visit the region in March 2014, although the Vatican has yet to confirm the dates.
Francis had indicated in July he would visit Israel in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Jerusalem in 1964, which took place before the Vatican recognized the State of Israel. “The government of Israel granted me a unique opportunity to come to Jerusalem,” Francis said at the time.
The Argentinian-born pontiff made the comments on his papal aircraft, while flying back to the Vatican from Brazil after his first trip abroad since his election in March. He told the assembled reporters that Israel invited him to visit to mark the anniversary, and if he did make the trip, he would visit the Palestinian Authority as well.
The visit would mark Francis’s second to the Holy Land. He visited in 1973, arriving just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. As The Times of Israel revealed in April, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (as he was known then) spent six days confined to his Jerusalem hotel, studying the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.
At his meeting with the pope, Abbas gave the pontiff a ceramic plate, adorned with a view of Bethlehem, and a Bible; in exchange, he received a decorative pen, which he said he would use to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
“Soon, soon,” the pope said, according to an AFP report.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced he would visit Rome and The Vatican next week for meetings with the pope and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Earlier in the day, Abbas presented Syrian-born Archbishop Hilarion Capucci with a medal of honor in Rome for his longtime aid to the Palestinian people.
Capucci, born in Aleppo in 1922, is the retired titular archbishop of Caesarea for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
He was imprisoned by Israel in the past for security offenses.
In 1974, Capucci, then an East Jerusalem resident, was arrested by Israeli security forces for smuggling arms into the West Bank for the Palestinian Liberation Army (the military wing of the PLO), using his diplomatic status as cover. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but was released two years later due to pressure from the Vatican.