Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Vatican Joins the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Vatican Joins the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Article excerpt

In May 2015, the Comprehensive Agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was signed. With this agreement, the Vatican formally acknowledged the "state of Palestine." A spokesman for the Vatican confirmed, "It's a recognition that the state exists."1

The agreement establishes both the standing2 and mode of interaction3 between the Catholic Church and the PA (and by extension, Israel), and describes the church's interests in the Holy Land.4 In exchange for the Vatican's formal recognition,5 the PA agreed to provide a broad gamut of religious benefits,6 not only for security for the local Catholic population to pursue its religious interests7 but also for protection of key holy sites, property, and financial interests.8

The Israelis, however, objected strongly, saying the agreement would make peace negotiations with the Palestinians more difficult.9 Michael Freund, former deputy communications director to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, questioned whether the Vatican's agreement was a return to the church's "sordid history of anti-Semitism."10

What are the implications of the 2015 agreement? What will it accomplish for each party? And what does it mean for Israel?

The Vatican's Position

Prior to the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948, the Holy See refrained from taking sides in the Arab-Jewish conflict, preferring to adhere to its foundational principle of "remaining [a] stranger to all merely temporal conflicts" as provided in the 1929 Lateran treaty.11 Thus, when the United Nations General Assembly convened on November 29, 1947, to vote on Resolution 181, partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, the Holy See (as a "permanent observer" at the United Nations) did not participate.

Of course, the Vatican did not remain aloof to developments in the Holy Land and their possible effects on the future of the Christian holy sites there. When, in the summer of 1937, a British royal commission proposed internationalizing the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a means of "ensuring free and safe access to them for all the world,"12 the Holy See registered its desire to protect Jerusalem's holy sites (while also seeking an additional international enclave near the Sea of Galilee), underscoring its enthusiastic support for territorial internationalization-what eventually became known as the corpus separatum.13 Likewise, despite abstaining during the vote on Resolution 181, the Vatican endorsed its recommended internationalization of Jerusalem;14 and while this corpus separatum was never implemented due to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and political infighting between interested states, the Holy See remained committed to the idea as the foremost means to safeguarding Christianity's holy sites.15

Thus, for example, in October 1948, the Holy See published an encyclical, In Multiplicibus curis, proposing to "Give Jerusalem and its outskirts ... an international character which, in the present circumstances, seems to offer a better guarantee for the protection of the sanctuaries."16 On Easter 1949, amidst ceasefire negotiations between Israel and its Arab invaders, the pope published another encyclical, Redemptoris Nostri Cruciatus, "the passion of our Redeemer," focusing on the torments of the Holy Land, and stating that "Jerusalem and its vicinity . should be accorded and legally guaranteed an 'international status,'"17 thereby further entrenching the Holy See's support for corpus separatum.

In subsequent decades, the Vatican made few official statements regarding Jerusalem's status, seemingly waiting for more opportune moments to raise the issue.18 In December 1963, Pope Paul VI announced his decision to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and pray for the success of the Second Vatican Council and for peace and Christian unity.19 Despite the Holy See having no official diplomatic relations with either Israel or Jordan, the latter of which at the time occupied the West Bank including east Jerusalem, this historic visit followed strict protocols reserved for visits of heads of states. …

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