The Vatican

What is the role of pontifical diplomacy in the Holy Land?

The diplomatic position of the Holy See on the situation in the Holy Land is based on the search for a just peace and a situation that preserves the human being and his dignity.

Andrea Gagliarducci-February 28, 2024-Reading time: 4 minutes

Pope Francis meets with the Chief Rabbi of Rome, November 2023 ©OSV

To understand the position of the Holy See on the situation in the Holy Land, and in particular its diplomatic position, one must start from a fundamental fact: the diplomacy of States is at the service of States, of their borders, of their interests; the diplomacy of the Holy See is at the service of man. This is a crucial key to understanding the sometimes mysterious actions of papal diplomacy, aimed not only at the pursuit of peace at all costs (because peace must above all be just), but also at the search for a situation that preserves human beings and their dignity.

Without this interpretative key, the Holy See's handling of the situation in the Holy Land cannot be placed in its proper context. A brief summary: on October 7, 2023, a terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas in the heart of Israel caused more than 273 military casualties and more than 859 civilians, according to data from last December. A very harsh attack, accompanied by the taking of numerous hostages, provoked Israel's reaction, which was also very harsh. Israel focused on the Gaza Strip, from where the attacks started, considered a nerve center of the terrorists' actions. Tunnels run from Gaza to hide the terrorists and bring them into Israeli territory. In Gaza, Hamas terrorists have their circuit and hide behind the civilian population, establishing their headquarters near or inside sensitive targets such as hospitals and religious houses.

Hence the Israeli reaction, which continues to this day, and which is aimed at completely eradicating the Hamas terrorist group. In the course of the Israeli counter-attacks, religious buildings have also been hit, and civilians who had nothing to do with the war have been killed, while the situation in Gaza remains extremely complicated, and the local Catholic Church, like the other religious denominations, is on the front line to bring aid to an exhausted population. According to some figures, also disseminated by Hamas, the Israeli reaction has caused 30,000 deaths.

An existential danger for Israel

Israel's reaction is deeply motivated: it is a State in existential danger, because it is surrounded by States that would like to destroy and annihilate it. And the Holy See knows this, so much so that shortly after the outbreak of the war it intensified contacts with Iran, considered by many to be a kind of "stone guest" in the conflict. There was a telephone call between Pope Francis and Iranian President Al-Raisi on November 5, 2023, at the request, among others, of Tehran.

This telephone call had a precedent on October 30, 2023, when Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Minister for Relations with States, had a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart Amir Abdollahian. This conversation had also been requested by Tehran. The Holy See Press Office took over the communiqué on this occasion, stressing that "in the conversation, Monsignor Gallagher expressed the Holy See's grave concern about what is happening in Israel and Palestine, reiterating the absolute necessity of avoiding the widening of the conflict and of reaching a two-state solution for a stable and lasting peace in the Middle East."

Every word of the communiqué was pondered. In particular, the reference to the two-state solution implied that the Holy See would never accept, even as a possibility, the non-existence of the State of Israel.

The Holy See's equidistance

There was, therefore, no doubt about the Holy See's equidistance. Especially since Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, had visited first the Israeli embassy to the Holy See and then the Palestinian embassy to the Holy See, in a gesture of closeness to the suffering of the peoples, but also of tacit support for the two-state solution.

However, there was a moment of crisis when, on February 13, Cardinal Pietro Parolin spoke on the sidelines of the commemoration of the revision of the concordat between the Holy See and Italy. The Vatican Secretary of State had condemned the Hamas terrorist attack of October 7, but had also stigmatized the disproportionality of the Israeli response, which had caused 30,000 deaths in Gaza.

Statements that provoked a quick reaction from the Israeli embassy to the Holy See. In a note, the embassy had responded that the cardinal was using the Hamas death toll and that the response was not disproportionate, because it was based on international law.

In describing the cardinal's statements, the ambassador had used the English term "regrettable," which in the Italian translation had been translated as deplorable, although "regrettable" has a milder connotation than "deplorable."

The Israeli embassy later clarified that it was a translation error, that the more correct translation would be "unfortunate", in what appeared to be an act due to the equidistance that the Holy See has always displayed.

A different model of diplomacy

It is in situations such as this that one can see the difference between the diplomatic philosophy of the Holy See and the diplomatic philosophy of States. The Holy See, in fact, looks to the people and, therefore, cannot remain indifferent to the death toll and the plight of the population, even when acts of war are a reaction and even when the war scene is deeply contaminated by terrorists - and even by unsuspected support for terrorism, with cells of support identified even in United Nations agencies.

States must defend their existence from every possible threat, and their diplomacy has this as its primary objective.

Then there are the Churches on the ground, which from the outset have demanded a proportionate reaction from Israel, highlighted the difficulties experienced by the Hamas population and adopted an anti-terrorist stance, but certainly favorable to the local population, whatever nationality they belong to.

The churches' statements have also often been criticized by the Israeli embassy to the Holy See, which complains, in general, of a narrative that is too unbalanced in favor of Hamas' theories. However, if the Church knows the local population and its difficulties, is it not logical that the first concern should be the population?

At the beginning of the conflict, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, commented that the Church could not adopt political language.

Therein lies the great struggle for balance in the Holy See's diplomacy. No one will ever be able to say that the Holy See supported the October 7 attacks, or that it shared even a fraction of the ideas of those who deny Israel's right to exist. But no one will be able to say that the Holy See did not listen to the cry of pain of the people of Gaza, even though it knew that this cry of pain could be exploited.

The authorAndrea Gagliarducci

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