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Vatican defends Palestinian sovereignty as Holy Land braces for Pope visit

The Pope's visit to the Holy Land this weekend raises hopes amongst Palestinians that he will highlight their plight
The Pope's visit to the Holy Land is being marred by arrests of Israelis opposed to his visit (AFP)

The Vatican's Secretary of State on Thursday defended the Palestinians' right to a "sovereign and independent" homeland and said he hoped Pope Francis's upcoming visit would lead to "courageous decisions" for peace.

"We know that the pope is going to a particularly suffering land," Cardinal Pietro Parolin, whose role is equivalent to that of a prime minister, told Vatican television ahead of the pope's three-day visit starting on Saturday.

"I really hope that the fruit will be to help politicians and all people of good will take courageous decisions on the path to peace," Parolin said in the interview, which was posted on the website of Vatican Radio.

Asked about particular points that Francis will talk about during the visit amid stalled peace talks, Parolin said they would be in line with Vatican policy.

"On the one hand, Israel's right to exist in peace and security within internationally recognised boundaries.

"And the Palestinian people's right to have a homeland, sovereign and independent, the right to move around freely, the right to live in dignity," he said.

However, it is also being reported that the pontiff has stressed the visit will be "purely religious" as he meets with leaders of other Christian denominations and other religions.

The pope travels to Jordan first on Saturday where he will meet Syrian refugees, then to Bethlehem in the Palestinian Territories on Sunday and on to Jerusalem where he will hold a prayer for Christian unity and visit holy sites.

The Vatican's decision for Francis to fly by helicopter directly to Bethlehem from Jordan without passing through Israel as normally required by diplomatic protocol is a first that has cheered Palestinians and angered Israelis.

The Vatican recognised the Palestinian Territories as the "State of Palestine" in 2012 and has incurred Israeli ire in the past for appearing to side with the Palestinians although relations have improved markedly in recent years.

Arrests and tension

Preparations continue to get underway for the Pope’s visit amidst tight security and tension.

Two Jewish youths were arrested Friday morning in Jerusalem for posting notices with comments like "impure, leave our Holy Land".

Earlier this week it was reported that Israel had decided to place three young Jewish extremists under house arrests as they were suspected of planning to disrupt Pope Francis's visit to the Holy Land.

"The police and Shin Bet (security service) have taken out restraining orders against several right-wing activists who, according to information from Shin Bet, are planning to commit provocative acts during the pope's visit," police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP.

Samri, who did not elaborate on what it was thought they intended to do, said the restraining order would apply for four days.

Media said the three activists were to be put under house arrest on Thursday, two days before Francis arrives in the region. The Israeli army would back the measures.

Restrictions on freedom of movement

Palestinian Roman Catholic priests urged Pope Francis Thursday to press Israel to give them freedom of movement during the pontiff's upcoming visit, particularly permission to travel to Jerusalem.

"According to the State of Israel, the illegal occupier, we do not have the right to travel to Jerusalem without permission from the Israeli army," some 20 priests of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem wrote in a letter addressed to Francis.

"This restricts our pastoral mission," the letter said, adding it was becoming "less and less likely" that they would be granted permission.

The Vatican has issued the priests with passes, but Israel has refused to stamp them with visas, rendering them void for entering Israeli-controlled territory, the letter said.

"Jerusalem is becoming increasingly closed off to Christians from the West Bank," it said, adding that pressure from the pontiff was "almost a last hope."

"Can the Holy Father be in the Holy Land without saying anything about the reality of injustice against an entire people held prisoner on its own land?"

Pope Francis's three-day visit starts Saturday when he flies to Jordan. He will travel on to Bethlehem Sunday morning, then to Israel, where he will spend the rest of the day and Monday in Jerusalem before heading home.

Francis will try to avoid political pitfalls in the sensitive region by being as "balanced" as possible in word and in deed, according to an old friend, Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem presides over 17 parishes for some 17,800 Catholics in the occupied West Bank.