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Vatican and U.S. Catholic Conference Policy Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

In Syria last month the Holy Father summarized the Holy See’s present policy this way:

[I]t is time to “return to the principles of international law: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, (and) respect for the resolutions of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions, to name only the most important. by Father Drew Christiansen, S.J.

Father Drew Christiansen, S.J.
USCC Counselor for International Affairs

Thank you, Bishop Fiorenza. My assignment this morning is briefly-very briefly- to highlight the key elements of the Holy See’s policy toward the search for peace in the Middle East.

The Holy Father himself has personified this policy with his biblical pilgrimages across the Middle East. His Jubilee pilgrimage to the Holy Land symbolized the Church’s role: standing with the Church in the Holy Land, reaching out to Jews, calling for peace, and voicing Palestinian cries for justice.

In Syria last month the Holy Father summarized the Holy See’s present policy this way:

(1) It is time to “return to the principles of international law: the banning of the acquisition of territory by force, the right of peoples to self-determination, (and) respect for the resolutions of the United Nations and the Geneva Conventions, to name only the most important. He added, “We all know that real peace can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions.

Let me quickly touch on five points:
(1) the place of international law in the resolution of the conflict,
(2) political dimensions of the question,
(3) the status of Jerusalem,  
(4) the refugee question, and
(5) ending violence..

First, the Holy See has for many years appealed to the principles of international law and especially well-known United Nations resolutions (242, 338, 194) as establishing the parameters for settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Vatican has placed increasingly heavy emphasis on international legality. The Holy Father in his address to the annual diplomatic corps in January went so far as to say “contempt for international legality” is one of the sources of the conflict.  On this point, the position of the Holy See differs also from that of the Clinton Administration which tended to minimize Israeli violations of international law on the grounds that all problems would be resolved in final status negotiations.  Those talks, however, were delayed three years, until last summer and opened with too little preparation.

The annexation of captured territory and settlement of one’s own population in occupied land is forbidden under the Fourth Geneva Convention. After Oslo, successive Israeli governments engaged in aggressive annexation and settlement building, establishing so-called facts on the ground. The Madrid and Oslo protocols, moreover, both assumed the framework of UN resolution 242 in which in return for peace the Israelis the Palestinians were to receive the land occupied by the Israelis in 1967. Accordingly the legitimate expectations of Palestinians as well as of the international community was that under the terms of Oslo the Palestinians would take possession of captured land. Negotiations should have dealt largely with technical details. Negotiations were not meant to substitute for implementation of resolution 242.

(2) With respect to certain political settlements, particularly those dealing with borders, the Holy See is restrained by the Lateran Treaty from taking defined positions. Nonetheless, it has repeatedly made plain that a negotiated settlement must be equitable and that the Church reserves the right to make moral judgements on the adequacy of any Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

At the 1998 colloquium in Jerusalem, Archbishop Tauran was emphatic that political aspects of the question are of concern to the Holy See. He minced no words, moreover, in declaring that (East) Jerusalem is illegally occupied territory.

(3) The new text on which you will vote has a long footnote on the Church’s policy toward Jerusalem. I would make only two glosses on the text. First, the special statute for Jerusalem would be negotiated by the two political entities involved. The international community would then be engaged to guarantee the implementation and enforcement of the agreement. If I am not mistaken, surprising progress was made towards the end of Camp David and again in November and December between Church leaders and both Israelis and Palestinians on the question of a special statute, including on the proposal for international guarantees. The U.S. position is unclear.

Second, in recent years the Church has emphasized the importance of protecting the rights of believers of the three Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem and the rights of their religious communities as primary goals for the statute, placing the question of the holy places in a somewhat secondary position. In other words, the Holy See has given priority to preservation of the living Christian communities, a position this conference has endorsed for at least a decade.

(4) Finding a resolution of the refugee issue will be quite difficult. UN resolution 194 guaranteed Palestinians who were willing to return to their homes in peace the right to do so. One of Israel’s ‘ myths,’ to use a term you heard yesterday,  is that to grant Palestinians the right of return would destroy the ideal of a Jewish state. Palestinian negotiators with whom I have met have repeatedly affirmed they would limit return to Israel in return for in-principle recognition of the right, just as Patriarch Sabbah told us. Unhappily when church offices in Washington recently approached Palestinian contacts about exploring alternatives to return-even Palestine would accept only one-half million refugees over ten years-these contacts told us the refugee question was a political lightening rod and to take any action as reasonable and humane as exploration of alternatives might be perceived as a very unhelpful initiative.  At the Daheisheh refugee camp a year ago March the Holy Father affirmed the refugees right to homes of their own without indefinite delay, but made no reference to Resolution 194 or other specific UN resolutions.

(5) Finally, the Holy See has been insistent on both sides bringing an end to the violence.  Last week, for example, the Holy Father lamented deaths of Israeli and Palestinian children who have been killed in the present conflict.  His appeal to the Geneva Conventions cited above is first of all a reminder of the immunity of civilians in wartime whether to military or guerrilla attack. In an effort to help end the violence, two weeks ago Cardinal Laghi and Monsignor D’Aniello traveled to the Holy Land with special messages to Prime Minister Sharon and President Arafat from the Holy Father.

Mindful of the need for brevity, I will stop here.

Thank you for listening.

2016-10-24T07:35:47+00:00 June 26th, 2001|Categories: News|