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The Holy See and the Middle East

 

by Most Reverend Jean-Louis Tauran
Secretary, Second Section:
Relations with States,
Secretariat of State

March 10, 1999
Washington, DC

The Catholic Church's interest in the Middle East goes back to the very first years of the Church's existence. Christians have always revered this region of the world, where God has drawn close to mankind: there the Jewish people had its founding experience of the Covenant; there Jesus lived, died and rose; it was there that the Prophet Mohammed developed his religious and juridical thought. So it is a region where for centuries faith and culture, faith and politics have met, sometimes fruitfully, often in confrontation.

For a very long time the fate of Christians in that part of the world was linked to the interests of the European powers. Since this century's process of decolonization they have tended to feel somewhat abandoned in the midst of a Muslim majority within a new Jewish State, surrounded by their Palestinian compatriots and caught up in bloody wars. As has been written, the Catholics have little by little become "thrice a minority, as Arabs among the Jews, as Arab Christians among Arab Muslims and as a minority within Christian society" (Daniel Rossing).

So it was normal that the Holy See should have shown a particular interest in this part of the world, and this in order:

  • to protect, and if necessary defend, the existence of Catholics and of Christians in general;
  • to help very differing peoples, constrained to coexistence by geography and history, to respect fundamental human rights and international law;
  • to defend the right of every people to choose freely its own destiny, in accordance with the principle of self-determination;
  • to defend the right of all States to live within clearly defined borders, without having to be in a constant state of alert;
  • to foster mutual understanding, dialogue between individuals and communities of believers in countries where religion and the structure of society go hand in hand;
  • to make everyone understand that war, which too often has bathed that region in blood, can never be a worthy means for people, especially if they are believers, to resolve their inevitable differences.
  1. For many centuries the main priority of the Popes was to ensure the survival of the Christians of the Middle East. Of this long history, marked as it is by the many sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the faith, I wish to recall just one aspect: the solicitude of the Holy See in defending the Christians who, after the Islamic conquest, were reduced to being (and with very few exceptions remain) second class citizens (dhimmis). Rome has never wanted Christians to live in ghettos, but on the contrary to establish a symbiotic relationship with Islam.

    The model which the Popes sought to safeguard and to promote is that of the Lebanon. The National Pact of 1943 established that from then onwards Christians, Jews and Muslims would enjoy the same rights and without any discrimination be able to assume public office within a democracy, where the most differing cultures come together into a melting-pot of East and West and where the monotheistic religions meet each other in harmony, making of that land more than a mere country, but rather "a message", to use an expression so dear to Pope John Paul II. Thus during the seventeen long years of the recent civil war, the Holy See always encouraged resistance to the temptation, which certain Lebanese circles harboured, to create a mini Christian state. The Holy See was convinced that through national and regional coexistence alone would believers, Jews, Christians and Muslims, safeguard the identity of their community. The rallying cry was to some extent "Let us save Lebanon to save the Christians" (and not "Let us save the Christians to save Lebanon"').

    The western powers, after the ambiguities of the Crusades, would themselves seek, through the system of the "Capitulations" and of mandates, to ensure, as best they could, good neighbourliness between the peoples and religions of the region. May I mention, by the way, apart from the creation of the Custody of the Holy Land, which had first occurred to the Sovereigns of the Kingdom of Naples in 14th century, the more recent efforts of France on behalf of Latin Catholics, the efforts of Russia on behalf of the Orthodox or yet again the action of Germany and England on behalf of Protestants. The Holy See was always careful to preserve its specific identity and independence both in thought and action. As a result of the decolonization process, it was able without any hesitation to establish diplomatic relations with the emerging countries: in 1947 with Lebanon and Egypt, in 1953 with Syria and Iran, in 1960 with Turkey, in 1966 with Iraq and in 1968 with Kuwait. In a different historical context, but certainly animated by the same spirit of dialogue from which none were excluded, the Holy See in the course of the year 1994 established diplomatic relations with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Israel, and official relations with the PLO. It thus became clear that the Popes had nothing against Islam and remained convinced that it was possible for believers to live in peace and to work together for the common good of their societies.

    Together with this diplomatic action properly speaking, there must be added the constant effort to strengthen ecclesial structures: the support of the Custody of the Holy Land entrusted by the Popes to the Franciscan Friars since 1342; the granting of patriarchal dignity to the Latin Bishop of Jerusalem by Pope Pius IX in 1847; the creation of a Roman Dicastery for the Oriental Churches by Pope Benedict XV in 1917; the publication of the Encyclical "Orientalium rerum" by Pope Pius XI in 1928 to promote understanding of the Christian East; the 1964 Decree of the Second Vatican Council on the Oriental Churches "Orientalium Ecclesiarum"; the promulgation of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in 1990; without forgetting such charitable works as the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and "L'Oeuvre d'Orient", just to mention the best known.

  2. The second approach for the action of the Holy See has been constantly to assert the principles of international law, which is applicable in all circumstances and to which all are subject. This proclamation of the law has been strictly maintained by the Holy See, which frequently found itself alone, but because of its quality as a "moral power" certainly could not be dispensed from proclaiming:
    • respect for persons whatever their beliefs;
    • freedom of conscience and religion;
    • the right of peoples to self-determination;
    • rejection of war and terrorism as the solution to differences between States.

    On two occasions the Holy See has demonstrated its fidelity to this philosophy of international relations.

    The first instance is in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each and every intervention by the Popes and their collaborators has consisted in stating that every people has the right to dignity, peace and security. And yet these cannot be secured by trampling on those of others. That is why the Popes, as also the international community, have never accepted, and this still remains true today, the annexation of territory by force. They have never ceased to invite the parties in conflict to meet, engage in dialogue and negotiate. Thus it is easy to appreciate that without the least hesitation Pope John Paul II encouraged the Middle East Peace Process, and in particular the Madrid Conference (his letters to Presidents Bush and Gorbachev eloquently witness to this). Moreover, the Madrid context has enabled the Holy See to reach a "Fundamental Agreement" and to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. The political dialogue between Israelis and Arabs which was going on at the time allowed the Holy See to draw closer to one of the main actors in the crisis, that is to say the State of Israel, without having to sacrifice the principles it seeks to defend and which are adequately reflected in the pertinent UN Resolutions. If the Palestinian partners, supported by the Arab world, were seated around the negotiating table, who could blame the Holy See for pursuing a more formal dialogue with the Israeli authorities in order to contribute more effectively to the cause of peace? It has become clear, as a reading of the 30 December 1993 Fundamental Agreement and the authorized interpretative declarations show, that the Holy See has absolutely not abandoned its principles: the peaceful resolution of differences, rejection of the forcible occupation by one of the parties of an area of the City of Jerusalem and the request for an internationally guaranteed statute for the most religious parts of this unique city.

    A second opportunity
    for a clear assertion of the principles professed through the diplomacy of the Holy See was offered by the Gulf War in 1921, Pope John Paul II spoke of the war as "an adventure without return" and made a point of rebuffing the attribution to the crisis of any religious motive or interpretation. By unceasingly inviting the protagonists to engage in dialogue, to follow untiringly the path of negotiation and to weigh the proportions between the remedies aimed at eliminating a wrong and the negative humanitarian consequences, the Pope once again demonstrated the independence of the international action of the Holy See, the conduct of which is founded on international legal and moral principles.

  3. The Holy See's third choice in contributing to the stability of the Middle East is nothing less than the promotion of inter-religious dialogue with the Jews and Muslims. As far as the Holy See is concerned this dialogue is founded on the respect that the three religions have for one another. This is of importance not only for the communities of believers themselves, but for society and for the world too: faith in God can only be a source of concord, rather than friction. All "religious fundamentalism", all use of religion to justify acts of discrimination or violence are perversions of religion and deserve absolute condemnation. What the Holy See has always tried to make understood to its partners in dialogue is that if God is one, this requires that all should consider themselves brothers. And when you truly experience such brotherhood you are more inclined to benevolence, to helping each other, to respect, to forgive and to cooperate. Believers thus have a special responsibility for peace building. Religious leaders should make one of their main priorities the promotion of an authentic "pedagogy for peace":
    • never consider the other person an enemy to attack or someone to convert;
    • consider the other person a travelling companion, a partner with whom you can build a society and a world in which it is good to live.

    Such an option, in that part of the world, is of universal importance, in as much as the three monotheistic religions, which have their historical roots in the Middle East, have followers throughout the whole world and in every society.

    The Holy Land, as the Popes love to call the Middle East, should be a sort of workshop for inter-religious dialogue, with Jerusalem, the Holy City par excellence, as its symbol. This explains why, and with what perseverance and intensity, since 1947, the Popes have made themselves the defenders of the preservation of the unique and sacred character of that City.

    Still today two peoples claim sovereignty over Jerusalem, and the faithful of three religions, both on the spot and throughout the world, look to it as their spiritual home. A political solution has certainly to be found within the framework of bilateral negotiations, but without forgetting, for all that, the sacred reality which the City enshrines. So it is that the Holy See, which has no direct technical competence or ambition whatsoever to intervene in the territorial dispute dividing the two peoples, certainly cannot fail to concern itself with the safeguarding of the sacred and cultural dimension of the Holy Places of the three religions. In its view, this is a universal cause which therefore requires that the entire international community should act as guarantor. The Holy See therefore strictly favors "a special internationally guaranteed statute' for the most sacred areas of the City, in order in the future to preserve and protect the identity of the Holy City in its entirety and in every aspect:
    • the historical, material, religious and cultural characteristics;
    • the equality of rights and treatment for those belonging to the three religious communities, in the context of the freedom of their spiritual, cultural, civic and economic activities;
    • the rights of freedom, of religion and worship for all, and of access to the shrines for residents and pilgrims alike, whether from the Holy Land itself or from other parts of the world.

    All this supposes also that these shrines might always remain at the centre of living and active religious communities, where these communities and their individual members have the possibility of fully enjoying their basic human rights and of maintaining their cultural identity.

    This request of the Holy See regards, first and foremost, the most religiously significant part of the City, namely the Old City. But such a formula would have to be extended to other shrines outside the Old City and beyond Greater Jerusalem, in Israel as well as in the West Bank.

    Perhaps you now have a better understanding of the sense of the words of Pope John Paul 11, when in his Apostolic Letter "Redemptionis Anno" of April 20, 1984 he wrote: "Jerusalem stands out as a symbol of coming together, of union, and of universal peace for the human family". Or yet again his words addressed to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See on 11 January 1992: "What a blessing it would be if this Holy Land, where God spoke and Jesus walked, could become a special place for encounter and prayer for peoples, if this Holy City of Jerusalem could be a sign and instrument of peace and reconciliation"!

    The, time has come to draw my words to a conclusion.

    The Arab Middle East, as a zone of convergence of great civilisations, religions and complex problems, defies easy understanding by anyone.

    The recent diplomatic activity of the Holy See in that part of the world has never put forward technical solutions to the divergent politics, which have brought into such tragic conflict peoples who, sharing a common geography, history and faith in the one God, should be brothers. What the Popes and their collaborators have tried to do is to be a kind of "voice of conscience'(which may perhaps be the best definition of papal diplomacy!) How was this achieved?

    • by telling everyone that the Holy See considers nobody its enemy;
    • by recalling the demands of law to the leaders of society;
    • by seeking to convince each people that inconsistency, violence, religious fanaticism and ideology can never lead to harmony and prosperity.

    It has to be admitted that this option has not been easy for the Holy See. Above all, because dialogue with Islam has been problematic for various reasons: religious extremism which is certainly a perversion of Islam, but which exists and still continues to this day to cause much harm; the interpretation of the concept of "human rights" within certain Muslim circles has prevented the Muslim world from protecting them in their fullness, despite, for example, a convergence of opinion with Christianity as regards the respect due to human life and the family.

    It must also be recognized that relations between the Holy See and the Jewish world -above all with the State of Israel - have hardly been helped by the failure to resolve the Palestinian problem, the lack of respect for certain UN Security Council Resolutions and duly concluded international Agreements, without forgetting the annexation by force of a part of the City of Jerusalem.

    On a happier note, despite the many stumbling-blocks, an institutional dialogue does exist between the Holy See and all the peoples of the region: diplomatic relations with many States and official relations with the PLO. The Holy See is frequently requested to offer help, is listened to within the international bodies, and all this simply in efforts to be helpful, without abdicating its specific nature as a "moral power"; the strategy is very simple: to invite each one to engage in dialogue, to negotiate and to respect the dignity of individuals and peoples. Furthermore, the Holy See has never forgotten the Christian communities, often alas held hostage by internal struggles and international conflicts.

    All this demonstrates, it seems to me, the importance of ethics in international relations. That is why the Holy See continues to hope that the day will come when believers, Jews, Christians and Muslims, will unite their voices, so that the Middle East, where the majority of us has our spiritual roots, may finally find reconciliation and that all the peoples may live and move forward together in the sight of God. Thus, the vision of an ancient prophet of those lands where God chose to meet with humanity will be fulfilled: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24). 


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