Pope Francis' private audience with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas this Jan. 14 will be a delicate diplomatic moment for the Holy See.
Mahmoud Abbas heads to Rome to inaugurate the new Palestinian embassy to the Holy See, one year after the Holy See-Palestine agreement took effect and made official the Holy See's recognition of the State of Palestine.
This visit will prove how Vatican diplomacy is able to walk a thin line. The Holy See is in dialogue with both Palestine and Israel. It has been criticized by the Israeli state for the recognition of the State of Palestine that was part of the comprehensive agreement.
However, it would be wrong to think that the Holy See's position is imbalanced. At a recent Catholic-Jewish joint meeting, the Holy See backed a final document that implicitly criticized a UNESCO resolution that failed to call by their Hebrew names some of the most sacred places of Jerusalem, like Temple Mount.
At root, the Holy See does not officially take any stance for one party or the other. Rather, it looks attentively to the events in the Holy Land and advocates for a peaceful solution of the conflict.
Yet in his speech delivered to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See Jan. 9, Pope Francis underscored that the Holy See renewed its urgent appeal for the resumption of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians towards “a stable and enduring solution that guarantees the peaceful coexistence of two states within internationally recognized borders.”
“No conflict can become a habit impossible to break. Israelis and Palestinians need peace,” the Pope said. “The whole Middle East urgently needs peace!”
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas announced his upcoming visit to Rome in a message delivered to Palestinians on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.
In the message, Abbas stressed that the meeting with Pope Francis will zero in on “the advancement of justice and peace in the region, as well as encouraging interfaith dialogue towards more understanding and respect.”
The Palestinian president also said that he and the Pope will “reiterate our strong position that no Holy Book should be used as an excuse or to justify the commitment of any kind of crimes or violations.” Another of the main topics of the meeting will be “the historic agreement between the State of Palestine and the Holy See as an example for the rest of the region on how to strengthen the presence of Christians and their institutions.”
“Christians are the salt of this earth, and we don’t conceive a Middle East without its indigenous Christians,” Abbas said. “We will continue to cooperate with the heads of Churches in Jerusalem, who are part of Palestine and its people, to advance these mutual goals.”
The Holy See-Palestine agreement was signed June 26, 2015 and came into effect Jan. 1. The agreement, in 32 articles, recognizes freedom of religion in Palestine and outlines the rights and obligations of the Church, its agencies and its personnel in the territory. The agreement also backed the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the agreement was officially announced, the Israeli foreign ministry deemed the treaty to be a “hasty step” that “damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement, and harms the international effort to convince the Palestinian Authority to return to direct negotiations with Israel.” It stressed its view that the agreement’s provisions “do not take into account Israel's essential interests and the special historic status of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.”
The issue of the historic status of Jewish people in Jerusalem was also raised in a UNESCO resolution Oct. 13, 2016. The resolution, put forward by the Palestinians and six Muslim countries, protests Israel’s actions in and around the Temple Mount and against Muslims praying or seeking to pray there.
However, none of the places involved was named with its Hebrew name. Temple Mount is called “al-Haram al-Sharif,” meaning “Noble Sanctuary,” while The Western Wall plaza is named in quotation marks, and indicates its name as “al Buraq Plaza.”
The resolution drew no Vatican comment. As a source within the Holy See diplomacy explained to EWTN News, “the Holy See does not enter into a political questions” such as those raised by the resolution, which was significantly titled “Occupied Palestine.”
A simple reading of the resolution indicates it was mostly political. The text never considered the question of whether the Western Wall is or is not a sacred location for Jews. Rather, it focused on two specific issues: the fact that Orthodox Jews always more often go to the Temple Esplanade, not just to the Western Wall, claiming their right to pray on the Mount of the temple; and how Israeli authorities manage excavations and infrastructures in the area of the Temple Mount.
However, the fact that the resolution used only Arabic names is perplexing, given that the resolution affirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls for the three monotheistic religions, also affirming that nothing in the current decision, which aims, inter alia, at the safeguarding of the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem, shall in any way affect the relevant Security Council and United Nations resolutions and decisions on the legal status of Palestine and Jerusalem.”
Though the Holy See, prudently, does not take an official stance on that question, its position could be glimpsed in a Nov. 30, 2016 document signed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See. The document was issued the end of a two-day meeting of the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission composed of the Chief Rabbinate and the Holy See commission for religious relations with Judaism.
The two parties have met on a regular basis ever since 2002. The delegations are restricted to six and seven members.
The meetings were interrupted only in 2009, following the lifting of the excommunication of Lefebvrist Bishop Richard Williamson, who had also made anti-Semitic comments. This was an isolated case. After a clarification, the schedule of the meetings was restored.
The commission’s last meeting took place Nov. 28-30. The last point of the joint statement stressed: “in discussion on current issues, the principle of universal respect for the holy sites of each religion was affirmed; and note was made of attempts to deny the historical attachment of the Jewish people to its holiest site. The bilateral commission vigorously cautioned against the political and polemical denial of biblical history and called on all nations and faiths to respect this historic religious bond.”
Though the reference was not explicit, it was clear that the document implicitly referred to the UNESCO resolution.
This way, the Holy See diplomacy maintained a balanced position. But in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations, diplomacy is always a thin needle to thread.
This is the diplomatic background of the Mahmoud Abbas visit to Pope Francis. Any comment, and any move of the Palestinian state, will be weighed with Israel. The Holy See will stay in the middle, advocating for peace, as it has always done.