The Vatican announced Wednesday that it had brokered a treaty with the “state of Palestine,” upsetting Israeli advocates and propelling Pope Francis into the heart of yet another geopolitical fray.
The treaty is expected to be signed “in the near future,” the Vatican said. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is scheduled to visit Pope Francis on Saturday, the day before the church canonizes two Palestinian nuns.
The treaty is thought to mark the first time the Holy See has formally recognized Palestinian statehood in a legal document. Vatican policy, however, has long held that a two-state solution is the best road to peace in the Holy Land. The Vatican has referred to Palestine as a state since November 2012, when the United Nations voted to recognize it as a nonmember observer state, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told CNN. At the time, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI led the Catholic Church.
“Therefore there is a coherent continuity,” Lombardi continued in an email. “Obviously this is an international agreement with the State of Palestine and this reaffirms the recognition.”
According to Palestinian officials, as many as 135 states now recognize Palestine as a state. Few political leaders, though, have the moral authority and popular appeal of Pope Francis.
While the Vatican commended the midlevel diplomats who hammered out the agreement, Wednesday’s announcement seems sure to polish the Pope’s image as a one-man United Nations, confidently wading into turbulent political waters and unafraid of upsetting the status quo.
Since his election in March of 2013, Francis has leaned on Western nations not to bomb Syria, angered Turkey by calling the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 as “genocide,” and helped broker a backroom deal that led to a diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba.
The Pope’s efforts to bring Palestinian and Israeli leaders together, though, have been far less successful. In a trip to the Holy Land last May, he called for a Palestinian state and stopped his motorcade to pray at a wall separating Bethlehem from Israel, a symbolically charged moment that angered some Jewish leaders.
In June 2014, Francis hosted Abbas and former Israeli president Shimon Peres for an unprecedented prayer ceremony at the Vatican.
“I hope that this meeting will be a journey toward what joins us, to overcome what divides us,” Francis said at the time.
Several months later, fierce fighting broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, with casualties and acrimony on both sides of the bitter divide.
The treaty announced by the Vatican on Wednesday was long in the making and is largely expected to concern the rights of church property and personnel in the West Bank.
“The agreement has great importance for the situation of the church in Palestine,” especially regarding religious liberty, Lombardi said.
The treaty “deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine,” the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday. Francis and other Catholic leaders have expressed repeated concern about the dwindling number of Christians in the Holy Land, particularly in Bethlehem on the West Bank.
American Jewish leaders, who seemed unprepared for Wednesday’s announcement, said the Vatican shouldn’t interfere with carefully calibrated Israeli-Palestian negotiations.
“Formal Vatican recognition of Palestine, a state that, in reality, does not yet exist, is a regrettable move, counterproductive to all who seek true peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
The Anti-Defamation League called the Vatican’s recognition of Palestinian statehood “premature.”
“We appreciate that the Vatican’s basic intention is to promote Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation,” said the ADL’s Abraham Foxman, “but believe that this diplomatic recognition will be unhelpful to that end, and instead only bolster the Palestinian strategy of seeking statehood through international fora and not through recognition, reconciliation and negotiation with Israel.”
As might be expected, American Muslims had a quite a different response.
“The formalization of this treaty not only confirms the integral and crucial role of Christians in Palestine,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “but also that the Palestinian-Israeli problem is not an issue between religions. It is in fact, a human issue.”
Candida Moss, a professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame, said Wednesday’s somewhat unexpected announcement will a draw attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East, a prevalent theme in this Pope’s public addresses.
“Advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups is a central part of Francis’s papacy, so it is wholly expected that Francis would take this opportunity to express solidarity for those in the Middle East.”