Israelis and Palestinians expressed measured optimism Sunday as their respective leaders Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas prepared to take part in an historic joint prayer meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.
Catholic officials played down the significance of the meeting, saying it was not intended to be a political event.
But the unusual summit — with Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers intoned in the shadow of St. Peter's Basilica — could take on great significance on the ground.
As the leaders gathered in Rome, people on both sides of the divide told NBC News of their hopes that it could lead to progress in the deadlocked Middle East peace process.
“I am very happy about this meeting,” said Ahron Reshef, 65, a lawyer in Jerusalem. “I would be very happy if real progress happens after this meeting.
“I’m an optimist but it's very difficult to be optimistic in this area … but I hope and I pray that something will happen.”
Aliza Ashkenazi, 50, a carpenter from Jerusalem, said the Pope was an ideal person to bring the rival leaders together.
“He is not for the Palestinians or the Israelis, so is the right person to do it,” Ashkenazi said. “I like to think that it's possible to have peace with both countries, nations. Hopefully something will happen but I'm not really sure it can be happening.”
She added: “It’s a beginning, it's a start. “It’s better than nothing.”
However, others in Bethlehem were more cautious. “For sure, it's something good, but for me I don't expect that anything will be changed in the near future or the far future,” said Bishara Salameh, a 33-year-old restaurant owner.
He said the outcome of previous talks had mostly benefited Israelis. “As a Palestinian,” he said, there was only “more collusion, more killing, more settlements, more confiscated lands.”
He also questioned why the meeting was taking place at the Vatican. “We don't have to travel to Vatican to pray,” he said. “We are living in the Holy Land and nothing is better than praying in the Holy Land. If they want to make something from their own heart and really they want to reach for a solution they can do it here, not in the Vatican.”
A former teacher from Jerusalem, who gave her name as Nicole, said: “I think if you don't meet somewhere… you can't make things move. I hope from both sides they should come and try, from both sides.”
She added: “Sometimes you need a third person in order to do something, you cannot always speak together in families, with friends. When you have someone neutral it's easier, like going to a psychologist. So let's hope that it will bring a better life for both sides.”