On Sunday Pope Francis will elevate to the rank of saint two religious women who lived and died in the Holy Land, Miriam Bawardy, a Carmelite nun, and Marie Alphonsine Ghattas, a co-founder of Jerusalem’s Rosary Sisters. An apostolic congregation, the Rosary Sisters now minister throughout the Middle East.
A fresh miracle had to be attributed to each of the new saints for them to be canonized. Among my Palestinian friends, planning to attend the canonization in Rome this coming Sunday a joke is circulating that there is yet another miracle: the Holy See’s announcement only days in advance of the canonization of a new treaty with the State of Palestine.
There is no doubt that for Palestinian and Israeli-Arab Christians the treaty has added an unexpected boost of joy to their celebration. It is wonderful for them to see the political as well as the religious aspirations of Christians in the Holy Land be filled this weekend, and for the hopes of their Palestinian compatriots be filled as well. But the diplomatic surprise is likely not to be the work of the new saints, but rather yet another dramatic gesture from Pope Francis, demonstrating his care for a grossly abused and neglected people, whom the world’s powers, and particularly the United States, have repeatedly failed. The pope has heard the Palestinian cry, “Let my people go.”
What is new in the agreement, as commentators have noted, is that it is a formal treaty entered into between the State of Palestine and the Holy See. Fifteen years ago the Vatican signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the PLO for the Palestinian Authority covering many of the same issues. But an MOU does not have the binding authority of a treaty, and while recognizing Palestinian aspirations for statehood, the MOU was with a political party, the PLO, not a state.
Secondly, the treaty will be a model document for the church in Muslim majority countries. As Vatican Insider reported, Msgr. Antoine Camilieri, the Vatican’s chief negotiator, saying, “[T]he agreement’s recognition of the Church and religious freedom could be followed by other countries, including those with a Muslim majority, and demonstrates that such recognition is not incompatible with the fact that the majority of the country’s population belongs to another religion.”
Twenty-two years ago when the Holy See and the State of Israel signed their Fundamental Agreement it was greeted as a model for the church’s presence in the Middle East. Grounded in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom and its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, unlike older Vatican concordats, it rooted the Church’s rights in the right to religious freedom of all citizens.
But, while Israel signed and ratified that agreement, it has never offered implementing legislation in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), so today, 22 years later, the agreement still lacks the force of law; and in court disputes Israel’s Justice Ministry presents it just that way. The State of Palestine has an opportunity to set a new standard for the Middle East, which Israel has failed to do, by not only signing but also enacting the treaty into law.
Thirdly, signing a treaty now protects the church’s interests against the advances of Islamism and Sharia law in Palestine. The PLO has been a secular nationalist movement since its founding. The PLO government on the West Bank has resisted pressures to make Palestine a Muslim state and Sharia the law of the land. Hamas, however, though it has shown itself protective of Christian Palestinian interests, particularly during riots following Pope Emeritus Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg lecture, is an Islamist movement which has made moves to impose stricter observance on the citizens of Gaza where it governs.
Polls, like a recent one at Bir Zeit University, suggest that in open elections Hamas could well be the victor in the West Bank territory now controlled by the PLO. An international treaty would protect Palestinian
Christians from Islamicizing pressures in the new state. One would hope it would also contribute to a condition of religious freedom and atmosphere of religious tolerance for all faith in the emerging Palestinian state.
Drew Christiansen, S. J., Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development at Georgetown University, is a former president and editor in chief of America.