Vatican and 'State of Palestine' agree to treaty safeguarding religious liberty

(L-R) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew meet in the Vatican, June 8, 2014. Credit: Alan Holdren/CNA.
(L-R) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew meet in the Vatican, June 8, 2014. Credit: Alan Holdren/CNA.

.- The Holy See and the State of Palestine have agreed on the text of a treaty regarding the life and activity of the Church in Palestine, which is expected to be signed soon by both parties.

Much attention has been given to the fact that in its May 13 announcement, the Holy See referred to its agreement with “the State of Palestine” rather than the Palestinian Liberation Authority, or some other title.

It is hoped that the agreement will encourage the international community to acknowledge an independent State of Palestine, alongside Israel.

A senior official at Israel's foreign ministry stated that Israel “was disappointed to hear about the Holy See's decision to agree on a final text of an agreement … with the Palestinians, that includes the term 'the state of Palestine'. This move does not advance the peace process and further distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations. Israel will examine the agreement and weigh its actions accordingly.”

And Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Holy See press officer, told journalists: “yes, it's a recognition that the state exists.”

However, the Vatican has been referring to the "State of Palestine" at least since January 2013, and the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican's official yearbook, lists a diplomatic relationship with the "State of Palestine."

So the initial use of “State of Palestine” in an official Vatican text is entirely in line with its longstanding support for the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The leader of the Vatican delegation to the bilateral commission is Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, under-secretary for the Holy See's Relations with States; the Palestinian side was led by Ambassador Rawan Sulaiman, assistant minister of foreign affairs for multilateral affairs.

Msgr. Camilleri was interviewed by L'Osservatore Romano about the terms of the agreement, and noted that the Holy See “welcomed the outcome” of the November 2012 United Nations vote which recognized Palestine as a non-member Observer State.

“The reference to the State of Palestine and the affirmations in the accord are therefore in continuity with what has been the position of the Holy See,” Msgr. Camilleri said.

The Vatican-Palestinian agreement recognizes freedom of religion in Palestine, and outlines the rights and obligations of the Church, its agencies, and its personnel in the territory. The comprehensive agreement follows upon a “basic agreement” which was signed in February 2000.

The bilateral commission was established after the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organization strengthened official relations. After the 2000 agreement, negotiations between the parties picked up again in 2010, with the aim of completing the basic agreement.

The treaty, Msgr. Camilleri said, “backs a resolution of the Palestinian issue and of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians within the Two-State Solution and the resolution of the international community.”

But the bulk of the agreement regards freedom of religion and conscience, as well as the Church's freedom of action, its staff and jurisdiction, legal status, places of worship, social and charitable activity, and use of communications media.

Msgr. Camilleri added that a final chapter of the agreement regards issues of a fiscal and proprietary nature.

As the vast majority of the Palestinian population is Muslim, Msgr. Camilleri underscored that “the fact that the agreement clearly recognizes the Church's status, as well as religious freedom and freedom of conscience, shows it may be followed by other countries, even from those with a Muslim majority, and proves that this recognition is not incompatible with the fact that the majority of the population of a country belongs to another religion.”

The official of the Secretariat of State added that “although in an indirect way,” the Holy See-Palestinian accord could hopefully “help Palestinians see and established and recognized independent State of Palestine, sovereign and democratic, living in peace and safety with Israel and its neighbors.”

Msgr. Camilleri also discussed the status of negotiations between Israel and the Holy See; they have yet to agree to issues of the Church's property rights and tax status in Israel. He noted that the Vatican's bilateral relations with Israel and with Palestine are separate issues, and added that an economic agreement with Israel “is almost ready. and I hope it will be signed soon.”

The agreement on the text of the Vatican-Palestinian accord comes days before Pope Francis will canonize two Palestinian saints.

He will say Mass on Sunday, May 17, at the Vatican for the canonization of Bl. Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas and Bl. Mariam Baouardy. They were both Palestinians born in the 19th century, and foundresses of religious orders.

Mahmoud Abbas, president of Palestine, is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis on Saturday, and to attend the canonization Mass the following day.

Tags: Religious freedom, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Vatican diplomacy, Palestinian Christians

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