Vatican under fire from Israel over accord with Palestine

Angus MacKinnon
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Pope Francis greets Palestinian authority President Mahmud Abbas at the end of a holy mass in St Peter's Square on May 17, 2015 in Vatican

Pope Francis greets Palestinian authority President Mahmud Abbas at the end of a holy mass in St Peter's Square on May 17, 2015 in Vatican (AFP Photo/Alberto Pizzoli)

Vatican City (AFP) - The Vatican came under fire from Israel Friday after signing a historic first accord with Palestine, two years after officially recognising it as a state.

The accord, which covers the activities of the Church in the parts of the Holy Land under Palestinian control, was the first since the Vatican recognised Palestine as a state in February 2013.

The product of 15 years of discussions, the agreement was finalised in principle last month despite Israel's opposition to both the symbolism of Palestine signing international accords and the specific content of the agreement.

"This hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement, and harms the international effort to convince the Palestinian Authority to return to direct negotiations with Israel," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in a statement.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Al-Maliki said at Friday's signing ceremony that it would "not have been possible without the blessing of his Holiness Pope Francis for our efforts to reach it".

The minister said the "historic" accord enshrined Palestine's special status as the birthplace of Christianity and the cradle of the monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism).

Paul Gallagher, the British archbishop who is the Vatican's de facto foreign minister, signed the accord on behalf of the Holy See in the presence of guests including Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, the Palestinian town considered to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

- Model text or one-sided -

Gallagher said the accord's provisions to ensure the rights of Christians should serve as a model for other Arab and Muslim states in their relations with Christian minorities facing increasing persecution in the Middle East.

He said it was "indicative of the progress made by the Palestinian Authority in recent years, and above all of the level of international support (for recognition)".

"In this context, it is my hope that the present agreement may in some way be a stimulus to bringing a definitive end to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to cause suffering for both Parties.

"I also hope that the much desired two-State solution may become a reality as soon as possible. The peace process can move forward only if it is directly negotiated between the parties, with the support of the international community," Gallagher said.

"This certainly requires courageous decisions, but it will also offer a major contribution to peace and stability in the region."

The Vatican's recognition of the state of Palestine followed a November 2012 vote in favour of recognition by the UN General Assembly.

The Palestinian Authority considers the Vatican one of 136 states to have recognised Palestine's sovereign status, although the number is disputed and several recognitions by what are now European Union member states date back to the Soviet era.

The Vatican has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1993 but has yet to conclude an accord on the Church's rights in the Jewish state which has been under discussion since 1999, with issues related to the status of Jerusalem proving hard to overcome.

Nahshon said the Vatican-Palestinian accord contained "one sided texts" which "ignore the historic rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and to the places holy to Judaism in Jerusalem".

He added: "Israel will study the agreement in detail, and its implications for future cooperation between Israel and the Vatican."