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'The Vatican-PLO Agreement: A Catholic Perspective,'
by Fr. Drew Christiansen

Thursday, March 16, 2000


16 March 2000'The ink was barely dry on the new Vatican-Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) agreement, signed 15 February 2000, when the protests were heard. The Israeli Foreign Ministry objected that Jerusalem could be a subject for comment in an agreement between the Vatican and the PLO. 'Jerusalem,' a ministry statement said, 'was, is, and shall remain the capital of Israel, and no agreement or declaration by these or any other parties will change this fact.' Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), branded the agreement 'unhelpful interference into the ongoing bilateral negotiations' between Israel and the PLO. What was the fuss? And was it merited?

The agreement itself is relatively brief. It consists of a ten-paragraph preamble and 12 brief articles. Seven out of the 12, the meat of the agreement, deal with freedom of religion, preservation of the so-called 'status quo' concerning the holy places, and the legal standing of the Catholic Church in Palestinian territory. The remaining five articles deal with the interpretation and implementation of the previous articles.

Freedom of Conscience:

The accord represents a further advance in the Vatican's effort to build relations in the Middle East on the basis of freedom of religion and conscience. For some time, sources say, commitment to these principles was a hurdle to PLO assent to the agreement.

The concern for the PLO negotiators was less freedom of religion than the parallel phrase, 'freedom of conscience.' Freedom of religion can be honored by respecting the established religious institutions and people who belong to a given religion from birth, as has been the custom in the Middle East from Ottoman times. The 'conscience clause,' it was feared, would open the door to the possibility of voluntary conversion.

For most of the 20th century, the Church was content to secure the institutional rights of the Church in its concordats with states. The 1994 Vatican-Israel agreement was the first agreement in which the Vatican gave priority to the rights of persons as believers before the interests of the Church.

Article 1 of the Vatican-PLO agreement commits both parties to support freedom of religion and conscience. Article 2 requires them to cooperate in supporting human rights, combating discrimination, and promoting inter-religious dialogue. Article 3 commits the PLO to 'ensure and protect in Palestinian law the equality of human and civil rights of all citizens, including freedom from discrimination' on the basis of 'religious affiliation, belief and practice.'

Freedom for the Catholic Church:

Three articles deal with the status of the Catholic Church in territory under Palestinian control. Article 5 'recognizes the freedom of the Catholic Church to exercise her rights to carry out ' her functions and traditions.' Lest these be narrowly construed to mean only liturgical rites, the text specifies the dimensions of Church activity covered by the agreement. They cover 'spiritual, moral, charitable, educational and cultural' activities. In protecting these activities, the agreement provides a defense against those who would limit believers' freedom to ritual observance. Such protection is particularly important for the Church's commitment to protect human rights.

The remaining articles, numbers 6 and 7, add legal substance to the Church's institutional freedom by recognizing 'the rights of the Church in economic, legal and fiscal matters.' They also promise the grant of 'legal personality' in Palestinian law for the Catholic Church and 'canonical legal persons,' such as parishes and dioceses.

The body of the agreement, where its binding legal substance lies, appears to be a realization of Vatican aims for securing the rights of believers and of the Church as an institution in the whole of the Holy Land. According to the Archbishop Pietro Sambi (papal nuncio to Israel and apostolic delegate to Palestine) and other Vatican spokesmen, the agreement was made necessary by Israel's disregard of the Vatican's repeated requests for guarantees of religious freedom at the time when Israel handed over territory to the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Gains:

For the Palestinians, the gain is further political recognition by the Holy See and partial affirmation'in an international document'of some of its primary goals: realization of 'the inalienable national legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people,' 'an equitable solution for Jerusalem,' and denunciation of unilateral actions affecting Jerusalem. It was these points, of course, that raised hackles in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and moved some Jewish organizations to cry 'foul.' The mention of Jerusalem was enough to stir a controversy.

All of the critics failed to note that the controversial passages appeared in the preamble of the document that technically is not legally binding, and that a clause stated that a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be realized 'through negotiation and agreement' in keeping with the Oslo negotiating process. They seemed to forget that, for 30 years, the Vatican has sought an 'internationally guaranteed special statute for Jerusalem,' and, for the last four years, has mounted a diplomatic campaign on behalf of its position. In keeping with Vatican policy, the most the document says about the negotiation over the holy city is that a solution should be 'equitable' and in keeping with international resolutions.

Church sources observe that the PLO had originally proposed an agreement favorable to far more Palestinian objectives. The preamble, by contrast, keeps to well-trod ground, and opens no new terrain for the Holy See. Indeed, it lays out in detail the safeguards the Vatican seeks in a special statute for Jerusalem.

The Real Issues:

What irks the critics, it appears, are the agreement's criticism of unilateralism and the text's parallel references to international law. '[U]nilateral decisions and actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem,' the preamble reads, 'are morally and legally unacceptable.' This judgment flies in the face of Israel's assertion that Jerusalem is and will be 'the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.'

While committed by Oslo to negotiate the future of Jerusalem in a final status agreement, successive Israeli governments have played 'hard' and 'harder' strategies. The 'harder' strategy holds that Jerusalem is simply non-negotiable. The 'hard' strategy is to insist that the future status of Jerusalem must be negotiated only by the two parties'in a context where Israel holds all the cards.

Insistence on negotiation has tended to mean that, after Oslo, nothing else has a bearing on the future of Jerusalem, including 'relevant' UN and Security Council resolutions cited in the Vatican-PLO agreement. As facilitator in the negotiation, the U.S., at times, has appeared complicit in this strategy of non-accountability. The Vatican-PLO agreement was an unwelcome reminder that the international community has an interest in the holy city's future.

Finally, the joint Vatican-PLO call for 'a special statute' to deal with the religious dimensions of a Jerusalem settlement is a reminder of the vital interest that the rest of the world'Jewish, Christian, and Muslim'has in the disposition of the holy city. A special statute would seek to correct the inequalities that continue to affect the residents of the city under Israeli rule.

The need for international guarantees for the governance of Jerusalem as a holy city was underscored by the Israeli government's recent sale of the shrine of Saint Mary's of the Germans to an Orthodox Jewish group. The special statute and its international guarantees, therefore, are not idle proposals. They offer needed responses to real problems. The trouble with the new Vatican-PLO agreement is that it placed them squarely on the table where they cannot be ignored.


Drew Christiansen, S.J., is a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, DC. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Palestine Center. This brief does not necessarily reflect the views of Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.

This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 28, 16 March 2000.


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