Pope Francis received the president of Bar-Ilan University Rabbi Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz at the Vatican, and was presented with the university's highest honor on Monday, amid protests from the Palestinian leadership.
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The university's top honor was presented to the pope in recognition of his lifelong efforts promoting peace and fighting for human rights.
“We are the sons of Abraham and we have the privilege and the responsibility to guide humankind on the path to peace,” the pope told the Bar Ilan delegation of 25 academics, as well as businesspeople from South America and Spain.
The Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization had lodged their protests to the Vatican over the pope’s agreement to see representatives of Bar Ilan, due to what they called the university’s right-wing positions and support for settlers and settlements.
Hershkowitz told the pope that former president Shimon Peres asked that Bar-Ilan University serve as a home base for dialogue among religions, an initiative which the pope and Peres have agreed to work together to advance. The pope welcomed this new development.
The reception with Pope Francis and presentation of the award marked the official opening of a year of festivities in celebration of Bar-Ilan University’s 60th anniversary.
“Peace and harmony were born much before religions were. The concepts of harmony and unity are shared by our respective religions. Unfortunately however, we are living in a world that is filled with hostility and animosity. Our very presence here signals a new beginning, a vista of opportunity. We are ever so aware of the need for dialogue and harmony, peace and coexistence,” Hershkowitz told the pope.
University 'taking advantage' of the pope, say Palestinians
Earlier this week, senior officials in the PA told Haaretz that PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki had informed the Vatican of the PA’s opposition to the meeting, which is scheduled. PLO Executive Committee member Hana Amira told Haaretz: “Bar-Ilan University is known for its right-wing positions and its support for settlers and settlements and it would be better for the pope and the Holy See not to agree to accept an award at this particular time, in which the Palestinians are fighting for their right to a state, and because the settlements are against international law.”
According to Amira, the university is taking advantage of the pope for its political purposes and the pope should remain outside this political debate.
The Palestinians said they regard Pope Francis as a close friend and noted his recent visit to Bethlehem, when he stood in prayer next to the separation fence.
It is unclear at this point to what extent the pope’s acceptance of the award will affect relations between the PA and the Vatican. However, sources in the PA said they could not let the meeting go by without responding.