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An agreement with the PLO strengthens Vatican’s ties with Palestine

by Carlo Marroni

For Papal diplomacy, after Cuba, it's the Holy Land's turn. An agreement was reached the day before yesterday between the Holy See and the Palestinian state. It is an agreement that encompasses many political and practical aspects. There is the Israeli disappointment for the decision by the Vatican to recognize the Palestinian state, which “does not contribute to bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table” for peace. But the recognition did not happen today: it happened on November 29, 2012, when the UN named Palestine as a non-member observer state, as the Holy See is.

Vatican documents since 2013 have mentioned Palestine as a “state.” The agreement between the Holy See and Palestine is complex. It includes political and practical issues in the Palestinian territories, where the Catholic Church is very much present in its many manifestations: from the Jerusalem Patriarch to the Franciscan Custody, all the way to the many religious congregations, missions, University Institutes, schools and hospitals.

The agreement—explained to the Osservatore Romano Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, the under secretary for state relations and the Holy See delegation chief—is the result of a basic agreement between the Holy See and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that was signed on February 15, 2000. The official relations between the Holy See and the PLO were established in October 1994, and after that came a permanent bilateral working commission charged with carrying on the negotiations towards the 2000 agreement.

This agreement lists among other things several issues regarding Church life and other matters of common interest. The basic agreement prescribed that the Commission continued its work and proposed a way to deal with the questions that were raised, “a mission that was fulfilled with continuity only after the pilgrimage by Benedict XIII to the Holy Land in 2009.”

The negotiations were reprised in 2010 and led to the elaboration of the current agreement. The document contains a preamble and a first chapter on the principles and the fundamental norms that are the framework for cooperation—among them the hope for a solution of the Palestinian issue and of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as part of the two-state solution and of the resolutions by the international community, encouraging an agreement between the protagonists.

What follows is a chapter on freedom of religion and conscience and others dealing with different aspects of the life and activity of the Church in the Palestinian Territories: its freedom of initiative, its personnel and its jurisdiction, its personal statute, the religious sites, the social and charity work, the means of social communication. A final chapter is dedicated to the fiscal and property issues. The agreement—reached under the guidance of the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin—has a very meaningful timing: on Saturday, Pope Francis will give audience to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who the day after will be present at the canonization of two nuns born in Ottoman Palestine in the Nineteenth Century.

There is also the Israeli chapter. The country showed irritation at the announcement. As recalled by Camilleri, since March 1999 there are negotiations with Jerusalem for the conclusion of a so called economic agreement, “that is almost ready and I hope could be soon signed with benefit for both parts. Containing several rather detailed technical questions, involving many Departments, the negotiations needed more time than expected, also because they were sometimes slowed down by other factors.” Palestinians are satisfied: “The agreement being discussed and finalized between the Palestinian state and the Vatican represents a strengthening of the agreements already signed between Palestinians and the Holy See,” said to wire service Ansa Majdi Khaldi, diplomatic advisor to Abu Mazen. “This is not a recognition: the Palestinian recognition as a diplomatic entity, by the Vatican, already happened years ago and was legitimized by the admission of Palestine as a non-member state at the UN.”