The meeting comes after Francis's private get-together with Russian leader Vladimir Putin
VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis met Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a closed-door meeting at the Vatican to discuss matters that are highly political and an illustration of the pontiff's increasing willingness to weigh in on global affairs.
The Israeli government said Netanyahu talked with Francis about the Iranian nuclear program, negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and the fate of Christians living in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.
The 25-minute meeting comes after Francis's private Vatican get-together last week with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
"During John Paul II's declining years, and throughout Benedict XVI's papacy, the Vatican was more quiet," said James Walston, a political scientist with the American University of Rome and a frequent commentator. "Francis is starting to show he's willing to be a lot feistier."
In the nearly nine months since he became pope, Francis has been outspoken about the need for Catholics to do more to help the needy and to focus on inviting people of all faiths to seek solace and direction from the teachings of Jesus Christ.
But in addition to his pastoral message Francis has increasingly waded into political matters.
He has questioned whether the church was putting too much emphasis on church stands against abortion and gay marriage. He called for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war rather than for the ouster of dictator Bashar Assad, whose forces have killed tens of thousands of civilians.
And in a document outlining his aims for the future Francis stressed the importance of governments to combat "unfettered" capitalism and a "culture of prosperity."
His statements on political and global affairs have caused consternation among Catholics who favor the defeat of militancy in the Middle East, as well as legal protections for unborn children.
Some in Rome said it was right that the pope weigh in on the big political issues of the day.
"I think the pope is already bringing his message of love and morals and transparency to the church, and if he can do that in the Middle East as well, it can only be good," said Fr. Antonio Mozzicone, who was in St. Peter's Square as the meeting between Netanyahu and Francis was taking place.
But Lorenza Sensi, a retired history teacher from a Roman Catholic school, disagreed.
"He [the pope] is a good man, a holy man, but I believe the church would be better off if he kept his focus on religious and church issues where he is desperately needed," Sensi said.
Netanyahu, who was also to meet with Vatican Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin, intended to invite the pope to come to Jerusalem next year, according to theJerusalem Post. If the trip happens, Francis will be just the fourth pope to visit Israel, which the Vatican recognized as a state only 20 years ago.
In addition to Iran the two were expected to discuss relations between Israel and the Catholic church. Netanyahu presented a Spanish translation of the 1995 book, "The Origins of the Inquisition," to Francis. Netanyahu's father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was an Israeli historian who died last year.
Netanyahu has been traveling to world capitals to denounce a pact between Iran and Western nations to limit its nuclear activities. The Israeli prime minister says the deal allows Iran to retain its nuclear capabilities and make fuel for a nuclear bomb.
Israel has sad it may have to launch a military strike to debilitate Iran's program. The U.S. State Department says the Iran deal is an initial agreement that will be strengthened.
Nnetanyahu emphasized the danger in a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta following his visit with Francis.
"Iran aspires to attain an atomic bomb," Netanyahu said during a celebration of the fifth day of Hanukkah. "It would thus threaten not only Israel but also Italy, Europe, and the entire world."