Vatican and PLO Sign Agreement

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The Vatican and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed an historic agreement February 15 calling for freedom of worship in the Holy Land and condemning Israel's "unilateral decisions and actions" concerning its disputed capital of Jerusalem.

The agreement, which came little more than a month before Pope John Paul II's scheduled pilgrimage to the Holy Land March 20-26, is the first of its kind between the Vatican and an Arab or Islamic entity. "Unilateral decisions and actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable," a key section of the agreement says in a clear reference to Israel.

At a 15-minute private audience after the signing ceremony, Yasir Arafat, president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), briefed Pope John Paul II on "the most recent developments in the peace process" and expressed "concern over the present situation," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls reported. Israel's negotiations with both the Palestinians and Syria have been stalled by its renewed conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Arafat said he urged John Paul to add Jericho, one of the first cities to be governed by the PNA, to the itinerary of his March pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the PNA-administered territory. Navarro-Valls said the pope "agreed on the spot." "God bless the Palestinian people," the Roman Catholic pontiff said at the end of the audience.

Zvi Tal, spokesman for Israel's diplomatic mission to the Holy See, expressed "dismay" at the agreement. He said that while the Vatican's position is well known, the signed accord amounted to interference in ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organization "regulates some questions of a juridical character concerning the presence and the activity of the Catholic Church in the territories of the Palestinian Authority," the Vatican spokesman said. In the 12 articles, the PLO affirms its "commitment to uphold and observe the human right to freedom of religion and conscience" and the Vatican its respect :'for the followers of other religions." The PLO also recognizes "the rights of the Catholic Church in economic, legal and fiscal matters."

The agreement is intended to serve as the basis for future accords with an independent Palestinian state. The Vatican and the PLO established official relations October 26, 1994, following the Vatican's recognition of Israel in December 1993. …