Pope seeks prayers for Israel after Sharon's stroke

Pope Benedict XVI has issued a special call for prayers for Israel, in response to speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could be near death.

"Let us pray for peace in the Holy Land, that the Lord will enlighten the hearts of that people and grant them a lasting peace," the Pope said on Thursday, in reply to an impromptu question from an Italian television reporter.

Catholic World News reports that the Vatican has not made any official statement about the political crisis in Israel, when Prime Minister Sharon is in a coma after a devastating stroke.

The Vatican press office was closed on Friday, 6 January, for the feast of the Epiphany.

An enterprising reporter from the Italian TG2 network coaxed Pope Benedict to comment when he caught the Pontiff's attention during a papal visit to the Nativity scene constructed by Rome's sanitation workers just outside the Vatican.

Several hours earlier the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, had aired his concerns to a Vatican Radio audience. "We are all still very shocked and moved," Fr Pizzaballa said.

"No one expected this," the Franciscan official said, referring to the cerebral hemorrhage suffered by the Israeli leader. The death of Sharon could have critical political consequences, he added.

"We had begun to hope for a new peace process, under strong new, motivated leadership," said Father Pizzaballa. "Now it seems that is finished. There are so many questions, so much uncertainty, so much fear…"

Sharon's new centrist political party, Kadima, had been favored in the Israeli elections scheduled for March 28. His incapacitation leaves the political future highly uncertain.

Among Palestinian leaders the reaction to Sharon's medical emergency was mixed. Although the Palestinian National Authority has regularly complained about Sharon's unilateral approach to peacemaking, elected Palestinian leaders had seen positive movement in recent months, and were troubled by the prospects for new Israeli leadership. But the leaders of radical Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with whom Sharon had refused to negotiate, indicated that they would not mourn his departure.

Pope asks prayers for Israel after Sharon's stroke (Catholic World News 6/1/06)

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9 Jan 2006