JERUSALEM — A top Catholic Church official in the Holy Land said that the Vatican's official recognition of the “state of Palestine” in a treaty announced Wednesday is “exciting” news that “did not come as a surprise.”
Bishop William Shomali, the auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, told the Register the Vatican's announcement “was not a surprise, because, already, the Pope called President [Mahmoud] Abbas the ‘president of the state of Palestine’” during his 2014 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The treaty, which has not yet been signed, recognizes the state of Palestine, and not the Palestinian Authority, as the representative of the Palestinian people.
The announcement comes just three days before Abbas is scheduled to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, a day before two Palestinian nuns will be canonized.
Bishop Shomali, who was traveling abroad and learned of the news during a phone call from the Register, said recognition of Palestinian statehood “is a normal development in the relations between the Palestinians and the Holy See. It seems very exciting. I didn't know the announcement was coming this week.”
On Wednesday, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman, affirmed that the treaty is “a recognition that the state [of Palestine] exists.”
The treaty “aims to enhance the life and activities of the Catholic Church and its recognition at the judicial level,” Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican's deputy foreign minister, said. The document will be signed in the “near future,” the Vatican said in a joint statement.
The Palestinians have increasingly turned to diplomatic channels and campaigns to boycott Israeli goods and citizens to achieve statehood, after peace negotiations with Israel came to a dead end. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conditioned Israeli recognition of Palestinian sovereignty to an end to Palestinian violence and a comprehensive peace treaty between the two enemies.
An Israeli diplomatic source told the Register that Israel “is disappointed by the use of the phrase state of Palestine” in the treaty.
“This does not advance the cause of peace, but, rather, will further distance the Palestinians from returning to direct bilateral negotiations,” the source said. “We will study the agreement and decide how to respond accordingly.”
The Holy See established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1993, despite fears that recognizing Israel would jeopardize the safety of Christians living in predominantly Muslim countries. That recognition has enabled the Holy See to negotiate matters, such as the taxation of Church-owned property and the shortage of Israeli visas for Catholic clergy, with the Israeli government.
Recognition of the state of Palestine will enable the Holy See to address issues related to the Church on an official level with Palestinian leaders.
There are less than 50,000 Christians living in the West Bank and a few hundred in Gaza, the majority of them Orthodox Christians. Their numbers have dropped dramatically in recent decades, due to emigration fueled by ongoing violence in the region and the difficulty to make a living under Israeli occupation.
Bishop Shomali expressed the hope that the Church's recognition of Palestine — when it becomes official — “will help all Palestinians find a permanent solution” to the conflict and the difficult conditions they endure.
“Christians are Palestinians,” the bishop said. “We will wait and see if this brings good news.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.