In the discussion and debate over the solution to tensions in the Middle East, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, one group is often left out of the mix: Palestinian Christians. This relatively small percentage of the population is still an important and lively community with deep cultural and personal roots in and around Israel, which contains a number of Christian holy sites.
In advance of the Pope’s visit to the region on Monday, they called for his assistance with the settlement of land disputes between Israeli authorities and the Catholic Church, in a move that underscored the problems faced by Palestinian Christians.
It’s growing challenging for the Christian community in the region not just to celebrate mass, but to maintain church lands and properties like farms, convents, hostels, schools and more. Israeli officials have attempted to seize lands for construction projects like settlements, the wall between Israel and the Occupied Territories, and other cited needs — they even tore down a house claiming “illegal construction” and forcing a Palestinian family into temporary tent housing. Christians with deep family roots in the region are starting to flee for areas where they feel safer, while the Vatican has expressed concern about the slow exodus of Palestinian Christians.
The Palestinian Christian community was initially concerned that the Pope wouldn’t engage with their concerns or wouldn’t intervene directly, citing worries about not wanting to destabilize relations between the Vatican and Israel as well as the Church’s past habit of not intervening directly in regional disputes. However, the Pope surprised both Israelis and his own entourage on Monday by speaking out on behalf of Palestinian Christians and proposing a peace summit at the Vatican — while the focus at the summit is on creating some options for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, presumably the Pope also has an interest in specifically discussing the issues faced by the Palestinian Christian community.
Speaking with President Mahmoud Abbas, he stressed the need to protect Palestinian Christians and their rich history. Clearly, the pleas of the community were heard, and while the Pope did not intervene directly, he didn’t take the hardened, hands-off approach that people have come to associate with the Vatican, instead committing to working on a solution as well as protecting his flock. He was also particularly concerned with the issues faced by low-income Palestinians, particularly children, many of whom experience additional hardships due to restrictions on travel and other limitations created by the Israeli government.
The foreign relations balance in this situation is tricky, as tensions have existed between the Vatican and Israel before, and Israel’s fraught position in the Middle East compounded by complex safety and security concerns can make the nation less flexible and giving in foreign relations negotiations. The Vatican’s decision to openly recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations was relatively recent, which doesn’t exactly add to its credibility, as older Israeli politicians and others may be uncomfortable with the Vatican’s perceived interference.
Given that Israel hosts Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites, the nation is already familiar with a multitude of religions and needs, as well as disputes over regions deemed especially precious. If the Pope is to succeed in creating breathing room for Palestinian Christians, it will require an incredibly delicate dance.
Photo credit: James Emery.