In a meeting today with Israeli President Shimon Peres, Pope Francis expressed his hope that Jerusalem would be a true 'city of peace,' with Peres echoing his commitment.

"May Jerusalem be truly the City of Peace! May her identity and her sacred character, her universal religious and cultural significance shine forth as a treasure for all mankind," said the Pope on May 26 in the garden of the president's residence.

Pope Francis also called for free access to sacred sites in Jerusalem, which are not "monuments or museums for tourists, but places where communities of believers daily express their faith and culture, and carry out their work of charity."

He said that the "sacred character" of the holy places "must be perpetually maintained and protection given not only to the legacy of the past, but also to all those who visit these sites today and to those who will visit them in future."

The Roman Pontiff then stressed, "how good it is when pilgrims and residents enjoy?free access to the Holy Places and can freely take part in religious celebrations."

Pope Francis praised president Peres for being known as a man of peace and a peacemaker, and reminded him that "peacemaking demands first and foremost respect for the dignity and freedom of every human person, which Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe to be created by God and destined to eternal life."

"This shared conviction enables us resolutely to pursue peaceful solution to every controversy and conflict," Pope Francis underscored.

The Pope then renewed his plea "to all parties" to "avoid any initiatives and actions which contradict their stated determination to reach a true agreement" – the same words he addressed to the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas May 25.

Pope Francis affirmed that "a firm rejection of all that is opposed to the cultivation of peace and respectful relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims" is needed.

"We think, for example, of recourse to violence and terrorism, all forms of discrimination on the basis of race or religion, attempts to impose one's own point of view at the expense of the rights of others, anti-Semitism in all its possible expressions, and signs of intolerance directed against individuals or places of worship, be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim," Pope Francis said.

The Pope also spoke of the need for respect for minority Christian communities, saying that "the presence of these communities and respect for their rights – as for the rights of all other religious groups and all minorities – are the guarantee of a healthy pluralism and proof of the vitality of democratic values."

"Christians wish to contribute to the common good and the growth of peace; they wish to do so as full fledged citizens who reject extremism in all its forms and are committed to fostering reconciliation and harmony," said the Pope.

Pope Francis then assured president Peres of his "constant prayer for the attainment of peace and all the inestimable goods which accompany it: security, tranquillity, prosperity and fraternity."

Concluding his address, Pope Francis mentioned the "continuing crises in the Middle East" and prayed that "their sufferings may soon be alleviated by an honourable resolution of hostilities.   Peace be upon Israel and the entire Middle East!   Shalom!"

In his speech, President Peres took the opportunity to highlight the role of Jerusalem as "city of peace," addressing an appeal to the Pope who "has spoken so much against violence."

"Blood of innocent people is spread. We would like that the amount of those who cause violence and war be diminished. We have to join together to bear peace. We have the responsibility of this," said Peres.

Peres then told Pope Francis: "Your Holiness, you are working so much to build dialogue among everybody, to achieve peace in this region, to achieve world peace. We are with you, with all of our heart, all of our soul, to fight against war and live peace."

The official remarks delivered at the assembly in the garden were preceded by a private visit in the presidential residence.

Seated beside the Pope, Peres told him, "interreligious peace is needed to achieve peace in other areas. Peace is a matter of imagination and inspiration. You bear imagination and inspiration, and we need them. Thank you for this."

Pope Francis replied, "With my imagination and inspiration I would like to invent a new 'beatitude,' which fits to me in this very moment: blessed he who enters in the house of a wise and good man. I feel blessed."

After their informal talk, the two men exchanged gifts.

Pope Francis gave president Peres a bronze bas-relief that commemorates the meeting between Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago, while president Peres gave Pope Francis a painting representing an olive tree which was painted by disadvantaged children in Nazareth.

They then headed outside to plant an olive tree as a sign of peace.