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The Pope and Palestine: looking out for a minority within a minority

Much has been made about the Vatican's recognition of Palestinian statehood, but Pope Francis' recent actions are also about supporting beleaguered Christians who act as a moderating influence in the Middle East, writes Natasha Moore.

Last week, the Vatican announced the conclusion of a treaty, to be signed shortly, between the Holy See and the “State of Palestine”.

Predictably enough, the interpretative wrangling began instantly. Officials, ex-diplomats, lobby groups, and media pundits all poked their heads above the parapet to offer quick-fire summaries of the significance of the announcement – where this latest development sits, within the context of recent history's most intractable conflict, along the continuum of routine-to-game-changing.

Media outlets reported the move as a formal recognition of Palestinian statehood, hailed by some as an important symbolic gesture. Israel expressed disappointment, arguing that the use of the term “State of Palestine” hinders rather than advances peace negotiations; one American Zionist group went so far as to characterise such wording as “the Pope's appeasement and collapsing in the face of radical Muslims”.

The less excitable pointed out a number of dampening facts to this narrative. That the Vatican has consistently referred to “the state of Palestine” in its communiqués, and welcomed its ambassador, since the UN General Assembly voted to recognise it as a “non-member observer state” in 2012. That during Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land in May last year, the official Vatican program referred to President Mahmoud Abbas as leader of the “state of Palestine”, and the pontiff himself used the term in a speech in the West Bank. That 135 UN member states have recognised a Palestinian state – most recently, Sweden, last October – and that the parliaments of Britain, France, Spain, and Ireland have all passed resolutions in the last few months urging their governments to do the same.

The Financial Times, while opting for a headline that called the treaty “groundbreaking”, quoted the Palestine Liberation Organisation itself as noting that “The Holy See recognised Palestine a long time ago”.

Of course, since his election as Pope, Francis has amply demonstrated his imperturbability to the political fallout of statements or actions he consistently makes on behalf of marginalised, dispossessed, or vulnerable peoples. Just in the last few months, he's unequivocally called the massacre of Armenians in 1915 genocide, met with Cuban president Raul Castro, and urged the European Union to do more about the wave of migrants arriving on – or drowning off – the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

When it comes to this new treaty, however, the vulnerable people most firmly in view seem to be the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East.

The agreement, runs the joint statement posted to the Vatican's website, “deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine” – properties, taxes, protocol at holy sites, and the like.

Largely bureaucratic matters, perhaps; but they send a broader signal of support for Palestinian Christians, a group that have long found themselves a minority among a minority. As hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians flee the wider region, the treaty seeks to shore up the position of the Catholic faithful in the Palestinian Territories.

History suggests that this is not merely a case of protecting one's own. Gary Burge, a New Testament scholar who has written extensively on the Israel-Palestine conflict, notes that the Christians of Palestine, unlike their Jewish and Muslim compatriots, do not tend to reach for extreme forms of religion as a means of empowerment.

This has the potential to make them a leavening agent among two implacably opposed groups. Burge refers to King Hussein of Jordan, who once said that the Christian Arabs of the Middle East are the glue that holds that fragile project together.

Yesterday, in Rome, in an open-air service attended by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis canonised two 19th-century Palestinian nuns: the first Palestinians to achieve sainthood.

The story of Mariam Bawardy's strange short tumultuous life includes her refusing to marry at age 13, having her throat slit by a would-be suitor who demanded she convert to Islam, becoming a nun in France, helping to found monasteries in India and Bethlehem, and dying of gangrene at the age of 33.

Marie Alphonsine Ghattas, who was born in Ottoman-ruled Palestine in 1843 and died there under British rule in 1927, is revered for her work in educating girls, and for founding an order that today continues to run schools, clinics, and orphanages throughout the Middle East.

The two women are the first Arabic-speaking Catholic saints. Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem told journalists: 

Our Holy Land continues to be holy, not only because of the holy places it hosts, but also because good people live here.

Many Israelis and Palestinians, whether Jews, Muslims, or Christians, have the opportunity to leave their volatile homeland for a quieter life – and choose not to. The treaty being signed between the Vatican and the “State of Palestine” shows that the Catholic Church shares their determination not to relinquish the possibility of real change in one of the most turbulent and divided places in the world.

Dr Natasha Moore is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at The Drum