JERUSALEM – In a new treaty finalized Wednesday, the Vatican officially recognized the “state of Palestine,” providing the Palestinian Authority with a new victory in its bid to seek unilateral recognition of a state outside the framework of talks with Israel.
The Palestinians' "state" comprises the territories of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern sections of Jerusalem, which encompass some of the most important churches and sites in Christianity.
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The Vatican move comes despite the PA’s history of holy site desecration, the persecution of Christians and the Palestinians’ failure to ensure freedom of worship in territories under its control.
The Vatican treaty governs the Roman Catholic Church in the Palestinian territories. It uses language that changes a diplomatic recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization to instead recognize the non-existent “state of Palestine.”
The document "aims to enhance the life and activities of the Catholic Church and its recognition at the judicial level," said Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, the Vatican's deputy foreign minister, who led its six-person delegation in the talks.
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Following a non-binding United Nations resolution in 2012 that recognized Palestine, the Vatican expressed support for the move and indicated it could follow suit. Wednesday’s treaty represents the first time the Holy See actually extended official recognition to “Palestine.”
Israel’s foreign ministry said it was "disappointed" by the development, and argued the move harms direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
"This move does not promote the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations," the ministry said in a statement to reporters. "Israel will study the agreement and will consider its steps accordingly.”
Eastern sections of the old city of Jerusalem contain many important Christian sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of John the Baptist.
It is unclear who will ultimately govern the churches and Christian holy sites under a future Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement.
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Previous negotiations gave some sections to the PA while talks included an international mechanism for the custodianship holy sites. At times, the Vatican was discussed as a potential custodian of eastern Jerusalem’s holy sites.
Still, the PA’s history of Christian persecution and the desecration of other religion’s holy sites is revealing.
Joseph’s Tomb is the believed burial place of the son of biblical Jacob who was sold by his brothers into slavery and later became viceroy of Egypt. It is considered Judaism’s third holiest site.
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Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, which granted nearby strategic territory to the Palestinians, Joseph’s Tomb was supposed to be accessible to Jews and Christians. But following repeated attacks against Jewish worshippers at the holy site by gunmen associated with then-Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat’s militias, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in October 2000 ordered an Israeli unilateral retreat from the area.
Within less than an hour of the Israeli retreat, Palestinian rioters overtook Joseph’s Tomb and began to ransack the site. Palestinian mobs tore apart books, destroyed prayer stands and grinded out stone carvings in the Tomb’s interior. A Muslim flag was hoisted over the tomb. The tomb’s yeshiva, or Jewish learning center, was burned.
To this day, the site is unsafe for Jews, who usually only visit once or twice per month on organized armored bus tours protected by the Israel Defense Forces. The tomb has been repeatedly attacked and firebombed.
Bethlehem was more than 80 percent Christian when Israel was founded in 1948. But after Arafat took control in the mid 1990s, the city’s Christian population plummeted to its current 23 percent. And that statistic is considered generous since it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating each year.
As soon as the PLO took over Bethlehem, Arafat unilaterally fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with Muslim cronies. He appointed a Muslim governor, Muhammed Rashad A-Jabar, and deposed of Bethlehem’s city council, which had nine Christians and two Muslims, reducing the number of Christians councilors to a 50-50 split.
Arafat converted a Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of Nativity, the believed birthplace of Jesus, into his official Bethlehem residence.
After the Palestinians gained the territory, reports of Christian intimidation by Muslims began to surface.
Christian leaders and residents told WND they face an atmosphere of regular hostility. They said Palestinian armed groups stir tension by holding militant demonstrations and marches in the streets. They spoke of instances in which Christian shopkeepers’ stores were ransacked and Christian homes attacked.
They said in the past, Palestinian gunmen fired at Israelis from Christian hilltop communities, drawing Israeli anti-terror raids to their towns.
Nativity church, Bible as toilet paper
In 2002, dozens of terrorists holed up inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity for 39 days while fleeing a massive Israeli anti-terror operation. Israel surrounded the church area but refused to storm the structure. Gunmen inside included wanted senior Hamas, Tanzim and Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades terrorists reportedly involved in suicide bombings and shooting attacks. More than 200 nuns and priests were trapped in the church after Israeli hostage negotiators failed to secure their release.
The Palestinian reportedly desecrated the church, leaving it in shambles. One insider account claimed the Palestinians inside used the Bible as toilet paper.
Some Christian leaders said one of the most significant problems facing Christians in Bethlehem is the rampant confiscation of land by Muslim gangs.
“There are many cases in which Christians have their land stolen by the [Muslim] mafia,” Samir Qumsiyeh, a Bethlehem Christian leader and owner of the Beit Sahour-based private Al-Mahd (Nativity) TV station, told WND in an interview in 2007.
“It is a regular phenomenon in Bethlehem. They go to a poor Christian person with a forged power of attorney document, and then they say we have papers proving you’re living on our land. If you confront them, many times the Christian is beaten. You can’t do anything about it. The Christian loses, and he runs away,” Qumsiyeh told WND, speaking from his hilltop television station during an interview.
Qumsiyeh himself said he was targeted by Islamic gangs. He said his home was firebombed after he returned from a trip abroad during which he gave public speeches about the plight of Bethlehem’s Christian population.
One Christian Bethlehem resident told WND her friend recently fled Bethlehem after being accused by Muslims of selling property to Jews, a crime punishable by death in some Palestinian cities. The resident said much of the intimidation comes from gunmen associated with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah organization.
A February 2007 Jerusalem Post article cited the case of Faud and Georgette Lama, Christian residents of Bethlehem who said their land was stolen by local Muslims, and when they tried to do something about it, Faud was beaten by gunmen.
One religious novelty store owner told WND that Muslim gangs regularly deface Christian property.
“We are harassed, but you wouldn’t know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims. This is why Christians are running away.”
Temple Mount artifacts destroyed
In 2007, WND reported from the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, that the Waqf, the site’s Islamic custodians, used heavy machinery to dig on the mount and were caught red-handed destroying Temple-era antiquities.
The mount is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. It is considered unusual to use heavy machinery on such a sensitive site.
It was not the first such report. When the Waqf conducted a large dig on the Temple Mount during construction in 1997 of a massive mosque at an area referred to as Solomon’s Stables, the Wafq disposed truckloads of dirt containing Jewish artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods.
After the media reported the disposals, Israeli authorities froze the construction permit given to the Wafq, and the dirt was transferred to Israeli archeologists for analysis.
The Israeli authorities found scores of Jewish Temple relics in the nearly disposed dirt, including coins with Hebrew writing referencing the Temple, part of a Hasmonean lamp, several other Second Temple lamps, Temple period pottery with Jewish markings, a marble pillar shaft and other Temple period artifacts. The Waqf was widely accused of attempting to hide evidence of the existence of the Jewish Temples.
Temples ‘never existed’
Most Palestinian leaders routinely deny well-documented Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.
Speaking to WND in previous interview, Waqf official and chief Palestinian Justice Taysir Tamimi claimed the Jewish Temples “never existed.”
“About these so-called two Temples, they never existed, certainly not at the Haram Al- Sharif (Temple Mount),” said Tamimi, who is considered the second most important Palestinian cleric after Muhammad Hussein, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
“Israel started since 1967 making archeological digs to show Jewish signs to prove the relationship between Judaism and the city, and they found nothing. There is no Jewish connection to Israel before the Jews invaded in the 1880s,” said Tamimi.
The Palestinian cleric denied the validity of dozens of digs verified by experts worldwide revealing Jewish artifacts from the First and Second Temples, tunnels that snake under the Temple Mount and over 100 ritual immersion pools believed to have been used by Jewish priests to cleanse themselves before services. The cleansing process is detailed in the Torah.
Asked about the Western Wall, Tamimi said the structure was a tying post for Muhammad’s horse and that it is part of the Al Aqsa Mosque, even though the Wall predates the mosque by more than 1,000 years.
“The Western wall is the western wall of the Al Aqsa Mosque. It’s where Prophet Muhammad tied his animal which took him from Mecca to Jerusalem to receive the revelations of Allah,” he said.
The Palestinian media also regularly state the Jewish Temples never existed.
While the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism, Muslims say it is their third holiest site.
The First Jewish Temple was built by King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The Second Temple was rebuilt in 515 B.C. after Jerusalem was freed from Babylonian captivity. That temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in A.D. 70. Each temple stood for a period of about four centuries.
The Jewish Temple was the center of religious Jewish worship. It housed the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant and was said to be the area upon which God’s “presence” dwelt. The Dome of the Rock now sits on the site and the Al Aqsa Mosque is adjacent.
The temple served as the primary location for the offering of sacrifices and was the main gathering place in Israel during Jewish holidays.
The Temple Mount compound has remained a focal point for Jewish services over the millennia. Prayers for a return to Jerusalem have been uttered by Jews since the Second Temple was destroyed, according to Jewish tradition. Jews worldwide pray facing toward the Western Wall, a portion of an outer courtyard of the Temple left intact.
The Al Aqsa Mosque was constructed around A.D. 709 to serve as a shrine near another shrine, the Dome of the Rock, which was built by an Islamic caliph. Al Aqsa was meant to mark where Muslims came to believe Muhammad, the founder of Islam, ascended to heaven.