Christians in the Middle East: Sometimes it isn't About Israel

Friends of Israel tend to use their “Israel is the center of the universe” prism to refract events in the region. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The New York Times, Foreign Policy magazine, and others to the contrary, the document released this week by a joint committee of Vatican and Palestinian representatives is not Vatican recognition of the State of Palestine – that happened in February 2013 – nor is it a slap at Israel. The agreement may have more to do with Vatican concerns about Christians in the Muslim Middle East than anything else. The Pope is set to bestow sainthood on two 19th-century nuns called by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, “Palestinian saints.” Maria Baouardy was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church born near Nazareth; after living in India, she spent the latter part of her life in Bethlehem. Mary Alphonsine Ghattas was born and lived her life in Jerusalem. “Ottoman saints” would be more to appropriate, as there was no Palestinian sovereignty in those places -- then or ever.

Although the Palestinian Authority (PA) is happy to take ownership of the two women’s saintliness from a public relations point of view, the Vatican has real problems. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere in Muslim-majority countries -- including in Palestinian-controlled areas -- have been decimated and are fleeing in extraordinary numbers if they can. (Only in Israel is the indigenous Christian population growing.) The Vatican holds no sway in most of the region, but “The State of Palestine” claims responsibility for both Gaza and the West Bank. The Vatican may believe that use of the symbolic title “State of Palestine” is a reasonable trade-off for trying to formalize the responsibility of the PA for the behavior of Hamas in Gaza, as well as for its own harassed and declining Christian population.  

The statement by the Bilateral Commission of the Holy See and the State of Palestine at the end of the Plenary Meeting tells a tale. (The whole text can be read here.) The first paragraph refers to the “Basic Agreement” of 2000 and references the work of preliminary committees, an indication of how long the two have worked together. Paragraph two announces the chairs of the meeting. Paragraph five lists the Vatican participants; Paragraph six, the Palestinian participants.

Paragraphs three and four give the substance:

The discussions took place in a cordial and constructive atmosphere. Taking up the issues already examined at an informal level, the Commission noted with great satisfaction the progress achieved in formulating the text of the Agreement, which deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine.

Both Parties agreed that the work of the Commission on the text of the Agreement has been concluded, and that the agreement will be submitted to the respective authorities for approval ahead of setting a date in the near future for the signing.

Paragraph 3 stipulates the Vatican’s interest: "essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine." There is nothing in this agreement for the PA, just the Vatican's interest in protecting the Church in "Palestine." Those pledged to the “two-state solution,” including the Vatican and the United States government, consider Gaza and the West Bank to be a single entity and “The State of Palestine” responsible for both. Hamas, which has run its own government in Gaza since 2007, is at war with the PA, but the Vatican needs someone other than Hamas to be responsible for the tiny group of Christians in Gaza -- at least on paper -- to protect “essential life” for the Church.

Along with mandating Islamic dress codes for all women in Gaza, Hamas has banned wine, including wine for communion; it is brewed now in secret. In 2007, the owner of the Gaza's Bible Society bookstore was murdered after being accused of proselytizing. The YMCA library in Gaza was blown up and all 8,000 books were destroyed or stolen. In 2011, Hamas cancelled Christmas, banning festivities and crucifixes.

Palestinian Christians in the West Bank are being squeezed as well. After years of prosperity from Israel-based tourists combining visits to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’s birth has suffered economically as a result of the “second intifada.” (During that period, residents of the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo were frequently fired on by Yasser Arafat’s gunmen ensconced in the Christian suburb of Beit Jalah.) There has since been out-migration of the Christian population from Bethlehem, and Muslims have moved in to become an increasing majority of its residents. Of late, Hamas has spent considerable money in the city, improving its standing; and radical Islamists are represented on the local council.

The Vatican has chosen “The State of Palestine,” which has no functional authority in Gaza and no particular interest in protecting Christians in the West Bank, as its interlocutor. Israel doesn’t figure in this discussion.

The American Task Force for Palestine (ATFP) tweeted out the incorrect Foreign Policy story about recognition, but was careful not to put it on the ATFP website; in fact, “Vatican recognition,” or even the fact of a joint statement, was nowhere to be found there. Tikkun magazine, a small left-wing Jewish publication, announced with typical hubris, “The Jews Congratulate Pope Francis,” but it wasn’t on Tikkun’s website either.  

The Vatican and the Palestinians, it seems, were frying different fish. The Vatican needs to worry about Christians in the region and can't talk to ISIS or Syria or Iran, so it chose the “State of Palestine” to take a stand for the “essential life of the Church.” The PA only wants to look like a state in the eyes of the media and thus further irritate Israel -- and it succeeded.