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Pope Francis Meets Mahmoud Abbas, Head of Palestinian Authority, Ahead of Talks

VATICAN CITY — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Pope Francis on Saturday before officially inaugurating the Palestinian embassy to the Holy See.

The official opening of the embassy is certain to rankle the Israeli government, which objects to any official recognition of a Palestinian state, and it comes on the eve of a key international conference on Middle East peace in Paris.

Image: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas  talks with Pope Francis
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (left) talks with Pope Francis (right) during a private audience at the Vatican on Saturday. GIUSEPPE LAMI / AFP - Getty Images

The embassy, in a building owned by the Holy See, has been operational at least since October. Nevertheless, Saturday's ceremony will highlight the Vatican's recognition of Palestine as an independent country.

In their talks, which lasted 23 minutes, Abbas and Francis appeared to look ahead to Sunday's international peace conference.

According to the Vatican, the discussion between the two "turned to the peace process in the Middle East, and hope was expressed that direct negotiations between the parties may be resumed to bring an end to the violence that causes unacceptable suffering to civilian populations, and to find a just and lasting solution."

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"To this end, it is hoped that, with the support of the international community, measures can be taken that favor mutual trust and contribute to creating a climate that permits courageous decisions to be made in favor of peace," the statement continued.

Relations between the Palestinians and the Vatican have strengthened in recent years.

In 2012 the Vatican welcomed the decision by the U.N. General Assembly to grant Palestine a “non-member observer state” status. In 2014, during his visit to Israel and the “State of Palestine” — as described in the itinerary published by the Holy See — Francis defended the Palestinians' right to a "sovereign and independent" homeland.

And in 2015, the Vatican identified Palestine as a sovereign state in a signed agreementrecognizing freedom of religion in Palestine, outlining the rights and obligations of the Church there, and backing a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Saturday's meeting between the pope and Abbas was their third, and its timing was significant. In addition to taking place the day before the Paris conference, it also came less than a week before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who has supported relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move the Palestinians vehemently oppose and which runs counter to decades of policy.

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Israel and the Palestinians, who are seeking a country of their own under what is known as the two-state solution, both claim Jerusalem as their capital. Successive U.S. administrations have said the status of Jerusalem — which Israel has declared its "united and eternal capital" but is home to sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians — must be negotiated.

Francis has urged Israel and the Palestinians to bridge their differences.

"May Israelis and Palestinians have the courage and the determination to write a new page of history, where hate and revenge give way to the will to build together a future of mutual understanding and harmony," Francis said in his Christmas address.

On Jan. 9, during his traditional New Year's greetings to the Holy See diplomatic corps, the pope renewed the Vatican's appeal for the resumption of dialogue toward “a stable and enduring solution that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of two states within internationally recognized borders.”