Vatican agreement will officially recognize Palestine as 'state'

by Gregory Tomlin, |
St. Peter's Square at the Vatican where Pope Francis holds public masses on most Sundays and Wednesdays. | Photo by Joni B. Hannigan/Houston

VATICAN CITY (Christian Examiner) – The Vatican announced May 13 it has reached a treaty agreement with the "State of Palestine" to set in place "essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church" there.

The move marks the first time the church has offered diplomatic recognition of Palestinian statehood, although it has referred to the territory unofficially as the State of Palestine since January 2013, shortly after the United Nations recognized it as a "non-member state" over the objections of the United States and Israel.

The Vatican is also recognized as a non-member state at the UN.

In a statement from the Vatican, the agreement was said to be the result of long-standing negotiations between the church and Palestinian authorities. The two sides reached a "basic agreement" in February 2015, and now both have moved on to a formal agreement, the statement said.

The Catholic News Service cited Vatican sources who said the formal agreement "will be submitted to the respective authorities for approval" and a formal ceremony should be held soon.

Vatican officials, however, are keeping details of the agreement under wraps until it receives signature from the parties involved, and that likely means a favorable outcome for the Palestinians. The agreement reportedly will recognize the viability of a "two-state solution" to the long-standing conflict between Jews and Arabs in the region.

Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican's undersecretary for state relations and head of the negotiations, told L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, that the Vatican wanted to "encourage the international community, especially the parties most directly interested, in undertaking more decisive action to contribute to reaching a lasting peace and the hoped-for solution of two states."

Camilleri also said he hoped the treaty would help Palestinians build confidence as they see themselves "established and recognized an independent, sovereign and democratic State of Palestine that lives in peace and security with Israel and its neighbors."

Palestine, however, is hardly democratic. President Mahmoud Abbas, much like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, has promised elections but continues to rule by fiat. He was elected in 2005 and was to serve a four-year term. He arbitrarily extended his term through 2010 citing internal conflict as the reason. No elections have been held since and virtually all leadership positions belong to former members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) founded by terror leader Yasser Arafat.

Abbas' refusal to hold elections lead to Hamas, the terror organization that now controls Gaza, rejecting his authority and declaring itself no longer under the governance of the Palestinian Authority.

A recent report in Al-Monitor, a Middle Eastern news service, also said that Abbas had failed to deal with corruption in his administration. The news service, citing a report from AMAN, the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity in the West Bank, that many Abbas officials are still receiving salaries of $10,000 a month – a figure "inconsistent with the financial realities of the Palestinian National Authority."

Abbas will meet with Pope Francis May 16, the day before the pontiff will canonize two native-born Palestinian nuns, Mariam Baouardy and Mary Alphonsine Danil Ghattas.

The push for the canonization of the saints has been underway since the early 1970s, but according to church officials, acknowledging their sainthood now has political implications.

At a press conference in Jerusalem, Bishop William Shomali, the deputy Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said both Christians and Muslims can be happy because two persons from "our country" had "joined the highest degree of human righteousness, spiritual wisdom and mystical experience of God."

"The two saints lived in Palestine before it was divided," Shomali said. "They did not know the Israeli-Arab conflict. I am sure they follow our situation from heaven and will continue to intercede for peace and reconciliation in the Holy Land."

During the U.S. State Department's daily briefing yesterday, Press Director Jeff Rathke, said he had seen the Vatican's announcement about the recognition of Palestine, but was "not entirely clear if that is a new step."

"Our position on a two-state solution remains the same, and we take note of what's happened with the Vatican," Rathke said.

The Jerusalem Post cited a source inside Israel's foreign ministry that the country's leadership was "disappointed" by the Vatican's decision to complete an agreement with the Palestinians. The action "moves the Palestinian leadership further away from returning to direct bilateral relations," the source said.

While the British were responsible for creating modern Palestine at the end of World War I, the term originally applied to much of the land of biblical Israel. In 1948, Israel achieved independence from British rule and a large number of Jews returned to the country following World War II.

Palestine is the designation the United Nations has used since 1967 to refer to the West Bank, when Israel won the territory from Jordan during the Six Day War – a war Israel did not start. Since, Israel has seen its possession of the West Bank as vital to its national security. Without it, Israel is 9.3 miles wide at its narrowest point – militarily indefensible against a large scale attack, most defense analysts claim.

In the 1967 conflict, popularly referred to as the "Six Day War," Arab forces from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, with the assistance of nine other Arab countries and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) attacked Israel with the goal of eliminating it. Arabs and Palestinians still refer to the loss of the war as an-Naksah, or "the setback."

Presumably, the term implies a momentary pause in the long-term plan to destroy Israel. Jordan and Israel concluded a peace treaty after the war, as did Israel and Egypt more than 10 years later. The Palestinian Constitution, however, still refers to Jerusalem as the Arab capital of its land.

An-Naksah, the loss of the 1967 war, is still commemorated annually in June. On May 15, the day before Abbas is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis, Palestinians will observe the Nakba, Arabic for "the day of catastrophe."

That date is an annual celebration of Israel's establishment as a nation in 1948, a day when many Palestinians left Israel. The U.S. Embassy in Israel has issued a warning for Americans in the country to avoid large gatherings and demonstrations for fear of violence.