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The Vatican and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: peace trumps politics

Abbas

The enormous amount of media attention that Pope Francis attracts has highlighted the Church’s influence in the world of global politics. The Pope, whoever he is, is a spiritual leader, but one with a permanent seat at the political table. Hardly a week goes by in which Francis doesn’t meet with some head of state or foreign diplomat to discuss religion and politics in the respective country.

This past week it was the Palestinians’ turn. On May 13 the Vatican announced that the Bilateral Commission of the Holy See and the State of Palestine had finalized the draft text of an agreement on essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine.

Then on May 16, on the eve of a canonization Mass in which two Palestinian nuns were proclaimed saints, Pope Francis met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The two men expressed their hope that peace talks would resume with Israel and that interreligious dialogue be promoted across the region.

Predictably, the three events—the bilateral agreement, the meeting with Abbas and the canonization of two Palestinians—reignited the discussion over the Vatican’s recognition of the “state of Palestine,” a recognition Israel categorically denies.

Israeli officials suggested that such recognition from third parties discourages the Palestinians from returning to the negotiating table, and some pro-Israeli voices even raised concern over what this could mean for Catholic-Jewish relations.

For the sake of clarification, it is helpful to review the Vatican’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reiterate the rationale behind it.

When last Wednesday’s announcement came from the Bilateral Commission, some credible voices in the media rightly pointed out that it wasn’t the first time the Vatican officially recognized the “state of Palestine.” It has been using this language since the 2012 United Nations vote to grant Palestine “non-member observer status,” a status shared by only one other state at the UN: the Holy See.

Far from going out-on-a-limb with its language, the Vatican simply recognizes what the vast majority of other nations recognize (the UN vote carried 138 in favor and 9 against with 41 abstentions).

And beyond this, it should be pointed out that the Vatican has long supported a “two-state” solution to the conflict. Upon his arrival in Tel Aviv last year, Pope Francis said:

“I renew the appeal made in this place by Pope Benedict XVI: the right of the State of Israel to exist and to flourish in peace and security within internationally recognized borders must be universally recognized.  At the same time, there must also be a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a sovereign homeland and their right to live with dignity and with freedom of movement. The “Two State Solution” must become reality and not remain merely a dream.” (Welcome Ceremony)

Pope Benedict said as much during his visit to the Holy Land in 2009, and John Paul II on many occasions insisted on a peaceful solution to the conflict. He also sought solidarity with the Palestinian people by fostering a relationship with then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Upon hearing of Arafat’s death in 2004, the Vatican issued a statement saying the Pope, “feels particularly close to the family of the departed, the Palestinian authorities and the Palestinian people,” and that he has “called upon the Prince of Peace to let the Star of Harmony shine over the Holy Land so that the two peoples who dwell in it may reconcile as two independent and sovereign states.”

Suffice it to say, no ground-breaking language was used over the past week by the Vatican regarding the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The Church’s position has been clear for years: a peaceful two-state solution whereby both parties respect the right and legitimacy of the other, with absolutely no recourse to violence. In recognizing the “state of Palestine” since 2012, the Vatican is adhering to the legitimate decision of the United Nations.

The Church always insists on peace over politics. Its support for a realized Palestinian state and a peaceful coexistence built on respect and mutuality is not exclusionary or one-sided, as some voices are suggesting. The Church equally supports the right and security of an Israeli state. But when it comes to conflict, especially violent conflict, the Church raises the bar beyond petty politics to the greater good, that is, justice and peace. As Pope Benedict XVI said in an address to the President of Israel in Jerusalem in 2009, “A nation’s true interest is always served by the pursuit of justice for all.”

SebastianGOn Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation.  For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society.  Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.

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Today on Perspectives, the Vatican works to clarify an article in Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper quoting Pope Francis on a series of on controversial topics. We also look at Pope Francis’ Sunday Angelus address where he addressed the escalating violence in the Holy Land. Finally we hear about three new bishops named in Hong Kong as well the episcopal ordination of Bishop Kevin Doran in Ireland.

Perspectives Daily – Pope Francis’ Invocation for Peace

Sunday was an historic day at the Vatican, where His Holiness Pope Francis first began by celebrating Sunday Mass on the Solemnity of Pentecost. Preaching inside a packed St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis spent his sermon talking of the Holy Spirit as the Master of Life. He said “The Holy Spirit teaches us the way, the Spirit reminds us of the words of Jesus and explains them to us, He enables us to pray and to call God ‘Father’, He enables us to speak to our fellows in fraternal dialogue and enables us to speak in prophecy.”

After the conclusion of the Mass, the Pope went to the Apostolic Palace where from a window high above St. Peter’s Square he delivered his Regina Coeli address. He continued on the themes explored in his sermon from mass, saying “The event of Pentecost marks the birth of the Church and the Church’s public manifestation: two things strike us [about the Church]: the Church is one that surprises us and stirs things up.” Pope Francis also expressed his gratitude to all those praying for his meeting later that day with President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine and President Shimon Peres of Israel. “I wish to thank all those who, personally and in community, have prayed and are praying for this meeting, and who will be united spiritually to our supplication.”

Then that evening, the pope’s guests began to arrive at the Vatican’s Domus Sanctae Marthae for the ‘Invocation for Peace.’ His invitation to the two Middle-Eastern leaders to come and pray at the Vatican became one of the defining moments of his recent trip to the Holy Land. The first to arrive was Israeli President Shimon Peres who was greeted by Pope Francis. He was soon followed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas whom the Holy Father also took time to meet and greet at the entrance to his home. After privately meeting with both leaders, the three men came together with both presidents embracing.

The men were then joined by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Constantinople, the first among equals in the Eastern Orthodox Church. They then proceeded outside where they took a van ride together travelling from the Pope’s residence at Domus Sanctae Marthae across the territory of the tiny Vatican City State. The men then arrived in the Vatican gardens where the invocation for peace was held, waling together side-by-side.

As they took their places, they were joined in the garden by representatives of the three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Jewish community first offered prayers in Hebrew, including a number of different psalms read and sung aloud.

Next, the Christian community offered prayers read by religious and laity, including His Eminence Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as well as by Patriarch Bartholomew.

Finally, prayers then came from the Muslim Community and were delivered in Arabic, and included a short musical meditation.

The prayers were then followed by an address from Pope Francis to the gathering. He noted the countless people from around the globe who joined them in prayer on this day, to pray that adversaries would become brothers and sisters. The pope said “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare. It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation; yes to sincerity and no to duplicity. All of this takes courage, it takes strength and tenacity.” He said history too often saw the use of force try and resolve problems. He rather called for those gathered to find the courage to ask God to help them find peace.

President Peres then addressed the gathering, saying both Israelis and Palestinians ache for peace. He said that “without peace, we are not complete, and we have yet to achieve the mission of humanity.”

President Abbas then spoke, calling their meeting the Pope’s efforts a truthful attempt at achieving peace. He said that they want peace and prosperity for their own and for their neighbors.

After the gathering, the men travelled together throughout the gardens before bidding farewell and going their separate ways.

Vatican Connections: May 30, 2014

This week we’re unpacking the souvenirs from Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land, including the pending prayer meeting with Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres. We speak to Fr. Thomas Rosica about the symbolism of the papal itinerary and the significance of his gestures during the visit.

Late Breaking Update: Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas will meet at the Vatican on June 8 for their Prayer meeting.

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Pope Francis is not the only pontiff to leave his hosts, and the world, with long lasting souvenirs of his visit.

The soon to be beatified Pope Paul VI could be the first pope who left his mark while traveling. His 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land was the first time a pope traveled outside Italy. It changed the idea of a pope being a monarch of monarchs to whom others made pilgrimage, into a traveling pastor who left home to tend to his flock.

During that 1964 voyage, Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. It the first time in 1000 years that a pope and patriarch formally met. It also launched a dialogue process that continues to this day.

JPII in Poland

In 1979 Pope John Paul II visited his homeland for the first time since being elected pope. He gave an electrifying homily during Mass at Warsaw’s Victory Square. He closed his homily calling on the Holy Spirit to descend and renew the face of the earth, “this earth.” Although it was more than ten years before the country would be free of its Soviet-backed regime, that homily is seen as the catalyst, encouraging Poles to slowly, quietly, build a new nation.

Cuba

John Paul II had a more direct and immediate impact when he visted Cuba in 1998. He asked Fidel Castro to make Christmas Day a public holiday. Days later, Castro announced Christmas Day would indeed be a holiday for Cubans. Benedict XVI followed in his predecessors footsteps in 2012, asking Raoul Castro to make Good Friday a public holiday. His request was also granted. To this day Good Friday and Christmas Day are national holidays in Cuba.

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