Relations between the Palestinian Authority and the Catholic Church are governed by the Basic Agreement signed, on February 15, 2000, by the Holy See and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). This treaty, which came into immediate effect, covers all the basic principles that regulate relations between the Palestinian government and the Catholic Church; for example it ensures that acquired rights are maintained, and that freedom of religion and of conscience is respected, along with equality among citizens regardless of religious affiliation.
Under article 4, the Agreement also refers to a very specific topic: respect for and maintenance of the legal code of the internationally recognized Holy Sites.* This code is known as the Status Quo. Specifically, article 4 deals with Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity Church, the main Christian shrine on Palestinian territory.
According to international law, the pro-tempore Palestinian civil authorities are obliged to maintain the Status Quo. But, questions remain open on this front as well. For example, an incident that took place in the spring of 2002 serves as a good indictor of the PNA’s will, or lack thereof, to protect religious freedom.* Two years ago, monks of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate stationed in Bethlehem stole the lock of the main entrance to the Nativity Church, replacing it with their own lock, thus depriving the Catholic Church and the Armenian Church of the right to have that church’s key.* That right is part of the Status Quo, recognized by article 4 of the Basic Agreement.
After months of useless
negotiations with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church officially petitioned President Arafat on April 12, 2003, through a letter by the Custodian of the Holy Land, asking that the Palestinian Authority intervene to recover the stolen lock. The letter officially invoked the Basic Agreement, and specifically article 4.* The then-Custodian, Father Battistelli, followed up the letter by meeting personally with Arafat and with the papal representative. Arafat named an ad hoc commission to look into the problem.* This commission recently recognized the validity of the Catholic Church’s claim and was about to issue a definitive decree that would have obliged the Greek Orthodox to return the stolen lock, but the Palestinian government has yet, in effect, to ensure the lock’s return. This is a matter that the new Palestinian government will have to expedite on an urgent basis, if it wants to maintain its credentials for respecting international commitments. The key, in itself, can seem a trivial matter. Instead, it will be a test in credibility for the Palestinian Authority. The very existence of the Church in the Holy Land depends on respect for the Status Quo and, in this case, its respect depends solely on the PNA. Failure to uphold the Status Quo can be blamed on neither occupation nor armed conflict.
Violence against Christians and guarantees on the Holy Sites of Christianity are two fundamental indicators of what kind of state the future Palestinian Republic may turn out to be. In speaking at an Islamo-Christian meeting in Ramallah last August, Patriarch Sabbah said, “Rapid and decisive action is needed to contrast the attempts of those who seek to exploit the situation to create further damage and destruction in this land and against its people”. “The risk is,” the Patriarch said, “that onlookers worldwide, in seeing what happens, will reach the conclusion that the Palestinian Authority is unable to protect all its citizens and therefore does not deserve to become an actual state.”