Israel's Peres to talk peace with pontiff

Israeli president and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres left for Rome on Monday for talks with Pope Francis and the new Italian government, his office said.

"I intend to personally invite Pope Francis for an official state visit to Israel and to strengthen the good relations that already exist between Israel and the Vatican," a statement quoted Peres as saying before his departure.

"The Vatican has an important role to play in the stability of the Middle East and I am sure that this visit will contribute both to the state of Israel and to the cause of peace."

In a message of congratulations to Pope Francis on his election in March, Peres said he "represents devotion, the love of God, the love of peace, a holy modesty and a new continent which is now awakening.

"He'll be a welcome guest in the Holy Land, as a man of inspiration that can add to the attempt to bring peace in a stormy area," said Peres.

Francis's predecessor Benedict XVI visited the Holy Land and met Peres in 2009.

After meeting the pope, Italy's new Prime Minister Enrico Letta and its president on Tuesday, the statement said, Peres would on Wednesday visit the city of Assisi, birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi, after whom the new pontiff -- Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina -- took his name.

Palestinian Christians near Bethlehem on Monday urged Pope Francis to speak up against an Israeli decision to build its controversial West Bank separation barrier on a route they say would isolate their community.

In an open letter the Christians of Beit Jala, a town near the city of Bethlehem, urged the pontiff to use his meeting with Peres to plead their case.

"We respectfully ask you to make use of this meeting to pass a strong message regarding the people of Palestine, and particularly the case of Beit Jala's Cremisan land," it said.

An Israeli court ruled last week in favour of constructing the so-called separation barrier through the 170-hectare Cremisan Valley, where many of Beit Jala's Christians work on the land and its vineyards.

The barrier's planned route would cut them off from the valley, and would effectively separate it from Jerusalem, which is five kilometres (three miles) away, locals say.