11/10/2004, 00.00
palestine - vatican
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Arafat and Catholic Church, a relationship that never came to fruition

by Bernardo Cervellera

Christians are subject to discrimination, violence, abductions. Yet the Basic Agreement with the Holy See is among the best documents on Church/State relations in the Islamic world.

Rome (AsiaNews) - With Arafat's passing, many questions remain open in the relationship between Palestinian leadership and the Catholic Church.  Despite the Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinian Authority, perhaps the best among the few such treaties that safeguard the Christian presence in Arab countries where Muslims are the majority, there is no lack of problems.

Of the approximately 3.5 million Arabs in Palestinian territories, some 40,000 are Christian. In various areas, these Christians live in what amounts to conditions of constant discrimination.  Often, Christian property (dozens of homes and thousands of hectors of lands by many accounts) gets confiscated by Muslim Palestinians, as the relevant authorities stand by in complete indifference to such injustices. And, at times, local officials themselves are implicated in misappropriations and other thievery. Christians in Bethlehem, Bet Sahour, Bet Jala and Gaza have been victims of physical violence, including rape, as well as harassment: their faith is ridiculed, they find themselves forced not only to respect Islamic religious practice, but also to kiss the Koran and define themselves "Muslims" under the threat of violence.

Ecclesiastic leaders in the area, including the Latin Patriarch himself, Monsignor Michel Sabbah, let President Arafat know about a long list of discriminations and harassment, but to no avail.

Promises were not lacking in the PLO leader's relationship with Christians, promises that were perhaps neglected or honoured only halfway. In the early days of his leadership within the Palestinian movement, Arafat distinguished himself for wanting to create a secular and democratic state. Secularity is certainly the best guarantee for the Church and Christians in the Middle East.

In recent years, however, under the effects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian commitment to secularity has been at risk. Palestine's draft Constitution itself is no longer rigorous about secularity and pluralism and risks moving more in an Islamic direction. In fact, the draft not only indicates Palestine's affiliation with Arab nations (as is perfectly natural from a geographic and cultural point of view), but also foresees its affiliation with Islamic states. Church commentators have, on various occasion, pointed out to President Arafat that a secular state – in which Christians share along with Muslims full rights of citizenship – cannot define itself to be integrated with Islamic countries.

Even certain political decisions, designed to indicate the state's good will vis-à-vis the Christian minority, have not been entirely in line with the concept of state secularity. The best example? The decision to reserve seats in the National Assembly to Christian representatives, for the purpose of ensuring a Christian presence in parliament. Such a gesture can be seen as a sign of solidarity with Christian, but risks reproducing a model of "confessional" representation that goes against the concept of state secularity.

Relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Catholic Church are governed by the Basic Agreement signed, on February 15, 2000, by the Holy See and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). This treaty, which came into immediate effect, covers all the basic principles that regulate relations between the Palestinian government and the Catholic Church; for example it ensures that acquired rights are maintained, and that freedom of religion and of conscience is respected, along with equality among citizens regardless of religious affiliation.

Under article 4, the Agreement also refers to a very specific topic: respect for and maintenance of the legal code of the internationally recognized Holy Sites.  This code is known as the Status Quo. Specifically, article 4 deals with Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Church, the main Christian shrine on Palestinian territory.

According to international law, the pro-tempore Palestinian civil authorities are obliged to maintain the Status Quo. But, questions remain open on this front as well. For example, an incident that took place in the spring of 2002 serves as a good indictor of the PNA's will, or lack thereof, to protect religious freedom.  Two years ago, monks of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate stationed in Bethlehem stole the lock of the main entrance to the Nativity Church, replacing it with their own lock, thus depriving the Catholic Church and the Armenian Church of the right to have that church's key.  That right is part of the Status Quo, recognized by article 4 of the Basic Agreement. After months of useless negotiations with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church officially petitioned President Arafat on April 12, 2003, through a letter by the Custodian of the Holy Land, asking that the Palestinian Authority intervene to recover the stolen lock. The letter officially invoked the Basic Agreement, and specifically article 4.  The then-Custodian, Father Battistelli, followed up the letter by meeting personally with Arafat and with the papal representative. Arafat named an ad hoc commission to look into the problem.  This commission recently recognized the validity of the Catholic Church's claim and was about to issue a definitive decree that would have obliged the Greek Orthodox to return the stolen lock, but the Palestinian government has yet, in effect, to ensure the lock's return. This is a matter that the new Palestinian government will have to expedite on an urgent basis, if it wants to maintain its credentials for respecting international commitments. The key, in itself, can seem a trivial matter. Instead, it will be a test in credibility for the Palestinian Authority. The very existence of the Church in the Holy Land depends on respect for the Status Quo and, in this case, its respect depends solely on the PNA. Failure to uphold the Status Quo can be blamed on neither occupation nor armed conflict.

Violence against Christians and guarantees on the Holy Sites of Christianity are two fundamental indicators of what kind of state the future Palestinian Republic may turn out to be. In speaking at an Islamo-Christian meeting in Ramallah last August, Patriarch Sabbah said, "Rapid and decisive action is needed to contrast the attempts of those who seek to exploit the situation to create further damage and destruction in this land and against its people". "The risk is," the Patriarch said, "that onlookers worldwide, in seeing what happens, will reach the conclusion that the Palestinian Authority is unable to protect all its citizens and therefore does not deserve to become an actual state."

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