JERUSALEM — In mid-January, the Palestinians fulfilled a dream: opening an embassy at the Holy See.
The Vatican has informally recognized Palestine as a state since November 2012, following a United Nations vote that recognized it as a non-member observer state. Furthermore, Pope Francis referred to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the “president of Palestine” during the Holy Father’s 2014 Holy Land pilgrimage.
But it was not until June 2015 that the Vatican signed a treaty, known as the “Global Agreement,” that acknowledged the “State of Palestine” as an official entity.
Diplomacy is one thing, but for Palestinians living in the Holy Land, statehood isn’t even close to being a reality. Israel, which captured Gaza and the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War, continues to control the borders of these territories, even though Israel uprooted its settlers and army from Gaza a decade ago. The wall it built around the West Bank severely limits Palestinians’ mobility, while Israel’s partial blockade of Gaza (Egypt maintains an even tighter blockade) strictly limits who and what can enter or leave the territory.
Given this reality, Palestinian officials say the Holy See’s recognition of Palestinian statehood is more vital than ever. After a meeting with Pope Francis prior to the embassy’s mid-January inauguration, Abbas said Palestinians are “very grateful about the role that the Holy See has played for a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land, and for having opened an embassy of Palestine in the Vatican for the first time. We are proud to be the birthplace of Christianity and about having one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.”
Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See, called the move “a significant achievement for the Palestinian people.” He said Pope Francis took a “moral, legal and political stand through recognizing the state of Palestine along the pre-1967 borders.”
In response to questions posed by the Register, the apostolic delegation in Jerusalem and Palestine — the Holy See’s diplomatic representative here — called the opening of the Palestinian embassy “a natural consequence” of the Global Agreement signed in 2015 “and of the spirit that motivated the negotiations and the contents” of that agreement, which deal with matters “of mutual interest.”
That agreement has benefited both the Church and the Palestinian people, the apostolic delegation said in a statement.
“It is an effective juridical instrument that assures legal recognition and guarantees to the Catholic Church, its institutions and its communities in Palestine.” The opening of the embassy “further enhances this juridical guarantee by the state and establishes for Palestine a formal and direct channel of communication with the Holy See through which mutual cooperation can be activated and developed,” the apostolic delegation said.
The Holy See views recognizing the state of Palestine as an “effective way to support and promote the two-state solution, seen by many as the only realistic way for the composition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the apostolic delegation said.
During the 2012 United Nations vote affording Palestinian non-member observer state status, 138 states voted in favor of that resolution, and “a very large” number of them have since opened a diplomatic mission in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, the apostolic delegation noted.
Bernard Sabella, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, emphasized that the Holy See has always been open to dialogue with leaders of various religions and that communicating with Muslim leaders in predominantly Muslim countries with Christian minorities benefits everyone.
Sabella, who is Catholic, said that beyond the practical issues the Palestinian embassy will tackle, “it is a symbol, an acknowledgement of the need for a Palestinian state and that Palestinians should have a place among the nations of the world. How much weight does it carry in practice? I wouldn’t downplay it.”
Invitation to Dialogue
The Palestinian legislator said the diplomatic relations are also “an invitation” to other Muslim countries to enter into dialogue with the Catholic Church.
“The Vatican’s style is always to meet on practical matters through religious dialogue, even though on religious theological matters we do not agree,” he said.
Sabella said diplomatic ties between the Holy See and Palestine help safeguard the Church’s rights in the West Bank, where less than 2% of the population is Christian.
“The 2015 agreement accords the Catholic Church many rights, and by extension accords rights to Christian institutions, such as churches and convents and church-owned land,” Sabella said. “It recognizes the Palestinian Authority as the authority in control of this territory.”
Hamas, which governs Gaza with an iron fist, has no diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Michael Sansur, executive vice president of Bethlehem University in the West Bank, said the new embassy “is important for us as Palestinians because in Palestine we are physically isolated by barriers and walls. The peace process is not progressing. We’re still under occupation, still besieged. We have no state, no entity except for the Palestinian Authority. We feel we’re not progressing. We have very few supporters on the international governmental level. Palestine is the birthplace of Christianity. To have representation at the Vatican lifts our morale and assures us that somebody is looking out for us.”
Sansur, who is Catholic, said the diplomatic ties have special meaning for Palestinian Christians “because we are a tiny minority. There are very few of us left.”
Sansur said that the formal relationship between the Palestinian government and the Holy See “serves to regulate and safeguard the holy sites, even though the Palestinian Authority already respects these sites.”
Sansur thinks the fact that the Holy See has recognized Palestine as a state, despite the belief by Israel that Palestinian statehood cannot be achieved until the Palestinians halt terror and recognize Israel as a Jewish state, has significantly raised the status of Palestinian Christians.
Said Sansur, “It puts Palestinian Christians in a good light when a state as important as the Vatican recognizes Palestine. It’s not to be belittled.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.