JPost.com staff contributed to this report.
VATICAN CITY – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Pope Francis in a 25-minute closed-door meeting Monday, with a host of geo-political and religious issues on the agenda as well as a formal invitation for the pontiff to visit the Holy Land next year.
It was the first time the two leaders met face to face, and they discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the escalating worries about Iran's nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, the welfare of Christians in Israel, as well as the pope’s expected visit to Israel.
If Francis does make such a trip, he will be just the third pope to visit the country since the Vatican established diplomatic ties 20 years ago, following a visit from John Paul II in 2000 and Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Paul VI also briefly visited Jerusalem in 1964.
Several news sources reported the visit would take place May 25-26, but Vatican officials said the trip has not been officially confirmed.
While at the Vatican, Netanyahu also met with Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin, accompanied by the Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Msgr. Antoine Camilleri.
According to political experts, Netanyahu's trip, which also includes a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, is important for all sides: for Netanyahu as he tries to rally support for a hard-line stance against Iran, for Italy as it seeks to play its traditional role as a bridge builder in the Middle East, and for the Vatican as it looks to reassert its role as a global player after several years in which that role was reduced.
“During John Paul II’s declining years, and throughout Benedict XVI’s papacy, the Vatican was more quiet,” said James Walston, a political scientist with the American University of Rome. “Francis is starting to show he’s willing to be a lot feistier.”
A day before meeting Francis, Netanyahu, with Italy’s Letta in attendance, spoke at the Great Synagogue in Rome. There he spoke out strongly against a nuclear Iran.
“I will not be silent,” Netanyahu said at a candle-lighting ceremony for the fifth night of Hanukka. “Iran aspires to attain a nuclear bomb. It would thus threaten not only Israel but also Italy, Europe, and the entire world."
“I tell you and promise in the spirit of the Maccabees, we will not allow Iran to receive a military nuclear capability,” Netanyahu concluded.