Pope Francis prays for peace in front of the Israeli security wall in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 25, 2014. The unscheduled stop was a highlight of the pope's three-day trip to the Holy Land. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, pool

Path to justice

  • May 21, 2015

A year ago Pope Francis dramatically indicated where the Vatican stands on Palestine when he stopped his motorcade and bowed his head in silent prayer at the security wall that divides the West Bank from Israel and the rest of the world. The image of a solemn Pope praying for peace made front pages around the world.

That powerful gesture, which angered Israel, was in keeping with a 20-year Vatican effort to reach an accord with Palestinian authorities while simultaneously recognizing Israel’s territorial and security rights. Earlier this month, the Vatican took another step in its Palestinian journey by shaking hands on a treaty that — by its existence more than its actual wording — formally recognizes the State of Palestine.

This development is laudable, although hardly surprising. It’s been coming for some time. In various unofficial statements since 2013, the Vatican has casually mentioned the State of Palestine. Pope Francis used the term last year when he visited the Holy Land. The Vatican has been a steadfast supporter of a 2012 United Nations resolution that recognizes Palestinian sovereignty. So to now see the Vatican negotiate a treaty which formally acknowledges the State of Palestine is more evolution than revolution.

Still it is significant.

The treaty, which again angered Israel, is a welcomed next step in a journey initiated under Pope John Paul II in 1994 and continued by Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican has long endorsed a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that ensures security for Israel and sovereignty for Palestine. For the Vatican, a key element of peace is obtaining guarantees that: uphold religious freedom and conscience; respect religious minorities in the Holy Land; safeguard churches, monasteries and other holy sites; and preserve religious schools and institutions.

Although still to be ratified, this new treaty reportedly satisfies those concerns as it reaffirms Vatican support for Palestinian sovereignty and encourages peace-building in the region. It formalizes on paper what the Vatican has long discussed. And for that, the treaty is commendable.

Additionally, the treaty further establishes Pope Francis as a statesman who can  bring his moral authority to bear on difficult international political matters. Twenty months ago his global day of fasting and prayer was credited with helping to avert American-led military action in Syria. Last year he was pivotal in re-opening relations between the United States and Cuba. It seemed natural for Francis to now turn his attention to what he calls “a land that suffers so much.”

Securing justice for the suffering people of the Middle East has been a goal of several popes. Formally recognizing the State of Palestine in a treaty that acknowledges Church interests in the region is a positive step in that direction.

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