A toehold in Jerusalem
On February 15, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and signed a historic cooperation agreement, the culmination of two years of negotiations. The meeting was Arafat’s ninth with the Roman Catholic leader.
The agreement, reportedly the first of its kind between the Vatican and an Arab organization (in 1997 a similar accord was signed with Israel), recognizes Roman Catholic property in areas where Israeli legislation is in effect, as well as in Palestinian-controlled areas. The accord grants the Catholic Church the right to freely carry out religious, educational and cultural activities, and recognizes the rights of the church in economic, legal and tax affairs. Palestinian official Emile Jarjoui said the agreement would also “regulate the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the Catholic churches in Jerusalem.”
Although the Vatican has traditionally not hidden its sympathies for the Palestinian cause, this agreement marks a significant emboldening of that stance, just five weeks before the pope’s highly anticipated visit to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan on March 20-26. At Arafat’s request, the pope agreed to add Palestinian-controlled Jericho to his itinerary.
The Vatican also seized the opportunity to reiterate its call, in the joint Vatican-Palestinian Liberation Organization statement, for an international mandate to preserve “the proper identity and sacred character” of Jerusalem—a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Although the Vatican’s position is not new, Israel has always rejected such a mandate, and has denounced the statement as Vatican interference in an issue that should be confined to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Pope John Paul II is fully aware that both the Israelis and Palestinians are attempting to exploit relations with the Vatican to their advantage. He is working a balancing act, with both sides vying for support of the aging yet powerful pope.
But it is clear where his greater sympathies lie. In spite of Israeli condemnation of this most recent move, the accord was heralded as a “diplomatic coup” among Palestinians and described by officials in Rome as “the basis for a concordat with a future Palestinian state.”
With both Israelis and Palestinians aware of the need to actively befriend the powerful pontiff, the Vatican finds its institutions guarded and its authority over them intact in the Holy Land. In other words, it has found its toehold in Jerusalem.