Vatican Recognition of Palestinian State No Surprise

Well, you can already almost hear the Francis-haters in and beyond the Catholic Church say “there he goes again!” as news spread that the Vatican had reached a bilateral agreement with Palestine as a state. And even the account of this development by the New York Times‘ Pianigiani and Gladstone makes it sound like a personal initiative that’s in keeping with this particular pontiff’s iconoclasm:

Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics, has long signaled his wish for a Palestinian state. For the past year, the Vatican had informally referred to the country as “state of Palestine,” in its yearbook as well as in its program for Francis’ 2014 visit to the Holy Land.

During that visit, Francis gave an additional boost to Palestinian sovereignty by flying directly to Bethlehem from Amman, Jordan, rather than stopping first in Israel as his predecessors had done. Francis later hosted the Palestinian and Israeli presidents in a prayer for peace.

It is not the first time Francis has shown a willingness to offend political sensitivities in the name of doing what he thinks is right. Exactly a month ago, for example, the pope angered the Turkish government by calling the 1915 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks a genocide. Turkey recalled its Vatican ambassador in response.

Yeah, that Francis–love him or hate him, he does his own thing, right?

Well, maybe not. Here’s an earlier account of a papal visit to Palestine, from the Guardian:

[The Pope] held his hands out wide to greet a crowd of applauding Palestinian refugees in the afternoon sun. Behind him stood the most striking symbol of Israel’s occupation: a paint-spattered military watchtower rising above the tall, concrete wall that presses on Bethlehem.

All around him were paintings, posters and graffiti proclaiming the Palestinian cause and their hopes from their papal visitor. From an apartment block to his left hung a poster in English and Italian: “We need bridges not walls.” On a balcony beneath, a Palestinian couple sat with their children, looking down as the pope waved back to them.

Today the pope made his strongest call yet for a “sovereign Palestinian homeland”. He said mass in Bethlehem’s Manger Square and offered his “solidarity” to the Palestinians of Gaza, telling them he wanted to see the Israeli blockade of the coastal strip lifted.

Later, he was driven in to the UN school in the Aida refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem, home to refugees who in 1948 were forced out or fled their homes in what is now Israel.

The pope acknowledged their “precarious and difficult conditions”. Today 5,000 live on desperately crowded land, an area of about 260 metres square. Their homes are in the shadow of Israel’s vast concrete and steel barrier, which stretches more than 400 miles across the West Bank….

“It is tragic to see walls still being erected,” [the Pope] said.

Wherever he went, the pope was welcomed with cheers and praise. A few thousand gathered early for the Manger Square mass, a sea of white and yellow caps, chanting “viva papa, viva Palestina” as they waited for him to appear. But even the pope himself acknowledged the thinly disguised frustration and bitterness that so many spoke of.

Okay, that’s enough. As you might have guessed, the Pope visiting Palestinians in 2009 was Benedict XVI, Francis’ very traditionalist predecessor. The Vatican has been trying to convince Israelis to end their occupation for years, in part because of the impact on Palestinian Christians, a community that’s all but vanishing. Yes, Francis’ predecessors have been very careful about Israeli sensitivities, for the obvious reason of the Catholic Church’s long and painful history of advocacy for and complicity with anti-Semitism, formally renounced by John XXIII at Vatican II and more emphatically denounced by John Paul II. But that’s all the more reason the current Israeli government needs to regard Francis’ action today as a bright flashing alarm that it is losing the global battle for hearts and minds when it comes to its abandonment of peace negotiations and its continued policy of building settlements in occupied territories it has no intention of giving up at any price.

But it will be interesting to see if conservative Catholics in this country and elsewhere add this action to their litany of grievances against Francis.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.