VATICAN CITY — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres met with Pope John Paul II today and said afterward that he told the pontiff that the disputed holy city of Jerusalem will remain Israel's political capital.
Peres told reporters after the 40-minute Vatican meeting that Israel will "respect the religious rights, needs, and expectations of all religions" in Jerusalem.
Chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro said that the meeting was cordial, but that neither side had changed its position on Jerusalem.
Israel annexed the Arab sector of the formerly divided city after it was captured in the 1967 Middle East war and says it will not negotiate its claim to sovereignty over the whole city. The Vatican has called for an "international statute" to guarantee the rights of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
John Paul set down the Vatican's point of view on the Middle East last April in a document that also said Palestinians have a right to a homeland.
Today's private audience lasted 10 minutes longer than scheduled. The two men spoke in English in the Pope's private library.
Peres said he did not issue a formal invitation for the Pope to visit Israel. However, he said, "if he is coming our way he would be a welcomed guest."
He said the pontiff showed "great interest in the prospects for peace" in the Middle East and "expressed his support for the well-being of my country."
Peres came to the Vatican hoping that the meeting would smooth relations irritated by Israel's annexation of Jerusalem and the Vatican's support for Palestinian rights.
Before Peres' visit, the last Israeli head of government to meet the leader of the Roman Catholic Church was Golda Meir, who held a stormy session with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1973.