Like the Holy See, Palestine is the only other entity to have been accorded “observer state” status by the United Nations General Assembly. This papal reference and courtesy call is the highest recognition yet of the Palestinian claim to statehood, and it will be hugely historic should the Pope publicly declare he is pleased to be in the “State of Palestine.”
Recognizing the ‘Jewish state’
Francis is acutely aware of the need not to slight Israel.
When Pope Paul VI visited the Holy Land in 1964, the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied by Jordan. Though he continued on to Christian sites around the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, the pontiff declined to officially recognize the state of Israel.
His thank-you note to the then-president for the 11 hours he spent in the country was addressed simply to Zalman Shazar, Tel Aviv.
Pope John Paul II made history in 2000 by visiting and recognizing the state of Israel on his pilgrimage. However, his successor, the German Benedict XVI, upset his Israeli hosts when, during a visit to Yad Vashem, he failed to acknowledge the Holocaust.
Watch then for Pope Francis to balance his recognition of the state of Palestine with recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state,” something the current Israeli government has ardently sought.
Francis will make history as the first pope to lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Israelis see this as an explicit endorsement of the Jewish nature of their state.
Though Palestinians denounce Zionism as the ideology that displaced thousands of Arabs during the establishment of the state of Israel, President Abbas is downplaying the significance of the Pope’s stop at Herzl’s tomb.
“It’s a courtesy visit,” explained Abdullah Abdullah, Mr. Abbas’s deputy commissioner for international relations.
International claims to Jerusalem’s holy sites
The Pope’s other priority is to assert the claim of the Catholic Church and other religions to the holy sites.
While the Vatican recognized Israel in 1993, following the signing of the Oslo Accord by Israel and the PLO, it never has recognized Israel’s claim of sovereignty to any part of Jerusalem. Its position stems from the 1947 UN plan to partition Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state, and an international zone for the Jerusalem area.
Since 1993, the Vatican’s position has evolved, Father Khader said, and “it no longer advocates a corpus separatum.”
Rather, “it supports the two states [Palestine and Israel] deciding matters of sovereignty,” Father Khader explained, “provided there are international guarantees for free access to all holy sites.”
The nature of Francis’s visit and the lengthy meetings with Bartholomew underscore the international importance of Jerusalem, says Archbishop Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. A man held in high regard at the Vatican, the Patriarch recently called for the holy city to be recognized as “the capital of humanity” with special international status.
Reading between the lines of the papal itinerary, Mr. Higgins believes the Pope is making a statement about Jerusalem, about its importance in building bridges between peoples, and about the Vatican’s interest being more than simply access to holy sites.
“Francis has shown the willingness to speak his mind freely,” Mr. Higgins said. “Listen carefully to his extemporaneous remarks about Jerusalem,” he advised.
In the casual manner by which Francis has become known, the Pope is being accompanied on his visit by two old friends from Argentina: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and a Muslim imam, Omar Abboud.
At the last minute, the pontiff also agreed to be joined by Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rai from Lebanon. The Patriarch, who is a cardinal in the Catholic Church, announced on his own he would join the Pope in Jordan on Saturday and travel with him to Jerusalem. The news raised eyebrows in the Vatican and temperatures in Lebanon since that country remains officially at war with Israel.
Consistent with Francis’s desire to reach out to the people, and much to the concern of Israeli security forces, the Pope has refused to travel in an armoured vehicle during his Holy Land visit.
And it’s not as if he has no enemies in Israel. In the past few weeks there have been several incidents of anti-Christian graffiti, some of it including death threats, being painted on Christian sites. Last week there also was a demonstration on Mount Zion by 200 to 300 Jewish zealots protesting the Pope holding a mass in the room believed to have been the site of Jesus’s “last supper,” which sits atop the tomb of ancient Israel’s King David.
To avoid any mishap, Israeli security forces are closing many of Jerusalem’s streets and keeping crowds at a good distance from the pontiff.
In Bethlehem on Sunday, Palestinian security is expected to be somewhat more relaxed, bringing to mind some chaotic scenes of 1964, when Pope Paul VI attempted to make his way along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, then under Jordanian control. The crowds pressed in so close that soldiers had to use rifle butts to clear a path.