Pope Benedict XVI’s appointment of Archbishop Fouad Twal as the new Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem to succeed recently retired Archbishop Michael Sabbah - after 21 years in that position – signals a significant change of course by the Vatican in its relationship with the Jewish State.
Archbishop Twal becomes the second Palestinian Arab to be appointed - after Archbishop Sabbah - as head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem.
However their Palestinian lineage and political heritage have taken markedly different routes.
Archbishop Sabbah was born in Western Palestine in Nazareth in 1933 - growing up and spending his entire life in that part of Palestine that witnessed the political struggle by the Jews that had begun in 1917 to reconstitute the Jewish National Home in Palestine - and culminated in the birth of Israel in 1948 in just 17% of Palestine.
Archbishop Twal was born in Eastern Palestine in Madaba in 1940 - growing up in that part of Palestine in which Jewish rights to settle or constitute their National Home were postponed or withheld - culminating in the Mandatory Power - Great Britain - granting independence in 77% of Palestine in 1946 to the totally Palestinian Arab population living there - today called Jordan.
Archbishop Twal’s appointment must be seen as an attempt by the Pope to heal the serious rift in relationships between Israel and the Vatican that had sunk to their lowest ebb ever by the end of 2007.
In November 2007 a former Holy See envoy to Jerusalem – Monsignor Pietro Sambri – complained that relations with Israel had been better before a historic agreement was signed between the Holy See and Israel in 1993 - recognising the State of Israel 45 years after its establishment. Monsignor Sambri listed a number of complaints – the failure to ease travel restrictions for Catholic clerics, threatened taxes on the Church and the status of expropriated Church property.
His complaints were mild in the face of what was to come when Archbishop Sabbah delivered this Christmas message on 19 December 2007 questioning Israel’s legitimacy to exist as the Jewish State:
“In recent times, there has been some talk about creating “religious” States in this land. But in this land, which is holy for three religions and for two peoples, religious States cannot be established because they would exclude or place in an inferior position the believers of the other religions…[Political leaders] must know that the holiness of this land does not consist in the exclusion of one or the other of the religions, but in the ability of each religion, with all of their difference, to welcome, respect, and love all who inhabit this land.”
The Archbishop was not directing his call to the Palestinian Authority’s Basic Law that declares:
“Islam is the official religion of Palestine”
and calls for 450000 Jews to be thrown out of the West Bank.
He was not sending his message to Jordan whose constitution declares that:
“Islam shall be the religion of the State”
and where Jews are not permitted to live.
The Archbishop was unabashedly espousing the right of return for millions of Palestinian Arabs - overwhelmingly Moslem - and their descendants into the Jewish State - Israel.
This uncompromising demand has been war cry of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab League for the last 40 years and has wrecked any prospects by America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - the Quartet - to attempt to create a new Arab State between Israel and Jordan.
The Vatican was silent in face of the Archbishop’s partisan antagonism towards - and criticism of - Israel despite the Vatican’s supposed non-political stance as expressed in Article 11 (2) of the 1993 Agreement:
“The Holy See, while maintaining in every case the right to exercise its moral and spiritual teaching-office, deems it opportune to recall that owing to its own character, it is solemnly committed to remaining a stranger to all merely temporal conflicts, which principle applies specifically to disputed territories and unsettled borders.”
Archbisop Twal’s appointment serves notice that the Vatican is now ready to honour this agreement.
Mending bridges - not tearing them down - has been the hall mark of Archbishop Twal’s career as one of the Vatican’s top diplomatic envoys. It started in 1976 with his appointment as charge d’affaires in Honduras in Central America thence back to the Vatican between 1982-1985 where he was made responsible for 19 speaking African countries in the Secretariat of State. Egypt, Germany, Peru and Tunis were signposts on the roadmap toward his appointment in 2005 as Coadjutor Archbishop of Jerusalem.
Archbishop Twal told http://www.cutodia.org in an interview on 22 June that :
“If you want to touch Jews, Muslims, Christians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Cypriots, Europeans all together ..then you have to consider every comma”
In the same interview he said :
“Perhaps I will disappoint journalists in politics”.
Yet he is still alive to the need to involve Jordan in the peace process telling Vatican Radio on 21 June:
“The majority of our priests, nuns, schools families are in Jordan. We need a link to Jordan…,”
The Pope - who is visiting Australia this week for World Youth Day might not be aware that another Catholic with the name Benedict - Australia’s 16th Prime Minister Joseph Benedict Chifley - once said:
“You don’t try to make love to a woman by kicking her in the shins”
The Pope’s appointee in Jerusalem has signalled the universality of this message. Regular newspaper columns devoted to Patriarchal criticism of Israel will now become mere historical footnotes.
The last Pope to bear Pope Benedict’s name - Benedict XV - enthusiastically endorsed the Jews’ right to reconstitute their national home in what was then Palestine when he told Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov at an audience in 1917 :
“Nineteen hundred years ago Rome destroyed your homeland and when you seek to rebuild it, you seek a path which leads via Rome…Yes this is the will of Divine Providence, this is what the Almighty desires.”
This papal message is hopefully what will now permeate relations between Israel and the Vatican. It has been a long time coming but can only be seen as a positive development in a region where bad news is usually the norm.