13 March 2000

The Vatican and Palestine - Christian and Muslim Perspectives

Mr. Adnan Husseini, Director, Islamic Waqf, Jerusalem and Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Head, Apostolic Delegation, Jerusalem
Place: Ambassador Hotel, Jerusalem

See Photos

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi:
 The occasion of this meeting is to discuss the visit of the Pope to the Holy Land, and stemming from that, the question of Vatican-Palestinian relations. Do we, as Palestinians, have relations at all with the Vatican? And, if so, what do they mean for us as opposed to the interpretation of others? We can not deny the fact that we are not alone in Jerusalem, that we are contained in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is an occupied, divided, polarized city, in which both Israelis and Palestinians are struggling to emphasize their own identities. Actions and words on one side always result in consequences and reactions on the other. Nevertheless, understanding our position within this city, we would like to use this forum to make our message clear regarding where we, as Palestinians, stand on the issue of the Pope's visit.

The objective of this meeting is to explore the Palestinian position. As Palestinians, what do we see in this relationship? What does it mean to us? Definitely, the Pope is unique, he is not an ordinary Pope. Wherever he goes, there is something happening - either a revolution, or a demonstration. He is different; he is unique, and we like him for it.

Now, what will the outcome of this visit be for the Christian minority - the 3% - as I see it? What will its outcome be for Arafat? The Pope comes to the Holy Land, to the Palestinians - whether we are Muslims or Christians. And, in this Holy Land of Palestine, we have a big wound. We will not put our heads in the sand and deny what has happened. The wound is there - in Muslim-Muslim relations, in Christian-Christian relations, and in Muslim-Christian relations. What should be done is to heal that wound. I hope that a meeting such as today's can begin the process of healing that wound. I am inviting you not to overcome things as they are, but to share them with us. Now, we, as leaders, are invited for dialogue - not to change our faith, but to understand our faith, to share our beliefs in the sense that this is me and please see me the way I am, not the way that you are trying to interpret me or portray me. If we reach that point, we can then put on the table three items:

The substance, the context and the wording of the texts, whether in the Bible, in the Holy Qur’an or in the Torah, do we take them as they are?

How do we read these texts as scholars, believers or religious and spiritual leaders?

How do we move that text to the public, to the people in the street?

Can we link these steps together, or are we stuck in the first step of misunderstanding and not being able to share the texts?

This session today is definitely about the Pope’s visit and not on the text of the Holy Qur’an or of the Bible, and here I am inviting Archbishop Pietro Sambi and Mr. Adnan Husseini in Jerusalem to share three items with us during this session as well:

The Pope’s visit: Is it a political visit? Is it a spiritual visit? Is it a combination of the two? Or, is it merely a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that we should not read much into. Or, perhaps because he is a different Pope, we have to read all these things into his visit?

The Palestinian-Vatican agreement: We Palestinians have succeeded in obtaining an agreement. The document is not only to tell the Israelis ‘you have it all there with the Vatican, we have it too.’ Regardless, he is not coming only for the Israelis with a signed document from the 1970s or early 1990s; he is coming to the Palestinians with a signed document, too. He is coming to the two people on the same Holy Land with two documents. What is in this document for the Palestinians from your perspective?

The historical confession of the Pope: This is a very serious and very important item. In the name of the Catholic Church, before God and before the cameras of the world, the Pope made an historic confession. How do we read that confession? Was it in preparation for his historical visit to Palestine and to the Holy Land? Was it to absorb any negative reactions from either side? Or, was he telling us that his visit is not the second chapter of the Crusades, that it is finished, and we are sorry - I am coming peacefully with my cross to Jerusalem for prayers, accept me, receive me and work with me? Can we read that in his confession?

I am inviting you to share with us.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: Thank you very much. I would like to say how happy I am to meet all of you and to share this moment of great significance - the visit of the Pope, the agreement between the PLO and the Holy See and the confession that the Pope made yesterday.

As to the first point, I can answer very clearly that the visit of the Pope will not be a political visit, it will be a spiritual pilgrimage. It will be an exclusively religious pilgrimage in its nature and purpose and I would be saddened if anyone were to attach other meanings to it. With this strong phrase, the Pope has definitely declared that his visit to the Holy Land is a spiritual pilgrimage. He comes here first of all as Head of the Church. It will be certainly a deeply personal experience, but walking in the steps of Jesus will also bring all Catholic Christians together spiritually, as to follow in His steps means to turn with fidelity to His teachings, to His spirit, to His example, to the salvation He offers to everyone who opens himself to Him.

The Pope comes also with a great desire for unity among the various Christian churches. The Church was founded in Jerusalem, and it was founded to go forth in unity among the Christians.

The Pope comes also with a great desire for interfaith dialogue. Even before he spoke about the Jews, he said, 'We cannot forget that the Holy Land is also dear to the followers of Islam. We look at it with special veneration. I dearly hope that my visit to the holy places will provide an opportunity to meet them as well, so that there may be a strengthening of mutual understanding as well as cooperation in the effort to witness the value of religious commitment in achieving a society more attuned to God’s design - a society that respects every human being and God’s creation.

I have to say also that the Pope will come here with a heart equally open and friendly towards the Jewish and the Palestinian people. Whosoever might wish to detect a word or a gesture in favor of one more than the other would be wasting his time and would have missed out on the real point of the visit. John Paul II’s preference will be for peace among the two people and for peace in the region.

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi: This is on the Pope’s visit, so we will move to number two - the agreement.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: This agreement is the result of a great effort together. This is not a game or a political document. This is a juridical document, and it is important to read it for what it is. Otherwise, one will make a wrong conclusion. There is an introduction to this document that has been strongly criticized in which -

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi: Not by us, by the others. We have to be clear.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: Of course. I have not heard criticism from you. The introduction calls for a peaceful solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would realize the inalienable national legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people. The solution is to be reached through negotiations and agreement in order to ensure peace and security for all peoples of the region on the basis of international law, relevant United Nations and Security Council Resolutions, justice and equity.

Another strong point in the agreement is the declaration that an equitable solution for the issue of Jerusalem, based on international resolutions, is fundamental for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Unilateral decisions and actions that alter the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable; the agreementcalls, therefore, for a special status for Jerusalem and international guarantees to safeguard the following (and note that all the aspects here are religious aspects):

-Freedom of religion for all;

-Equality before the law for the three monotheistic religions and their institutions and followers in the city;

-The proper identity and sacred character of the city and its universally significant religious and cultural heritage;

-Freedom of access to the holy places and freedom to worship in them as the regime of status quo in those places applies.

The document also contains important references to the protection of human rights, freedom of religion, elimination of all forms of discrimination and threats to human life, dignity and the effort of understanding and achieving harmony between nations and communities. There is also mention that the parties will continue to encourage inter-religious dialogue for the promotion of better understanding between people of different religions and the equality of human and civil rights among all the citizens.

It must be clear that the signing of this agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinians cannot be considered in any way an act offensive to other people, just as when the Holy See signed an agreement with Israel, it was not an act against the Palestinian people. From this position, it is important people to understand that the Holy See can exercise its moral and spiritual prestige and compassion in order to push the two parties to a real peace.

The third issue is what the Head of PASSIA called ‘the confession’. This is a strong action, as not even all Catholics can easily understand that the Pope is a guide, and a guide must have the courage to tell the truth to the faithful. And, the Pope did this in his words and in his example. He asked forgiveness for all the things that the members of the church have done throughout its history. This is the purification of memory. It is a purification of conscience so as to start the new millennium with a clearer conscience. I hear people asking, why did not he say this, and why did not he say that. I would like to remember a phrase of Saint Augustine: “Those who are not conscious of their sins are really furious? of the sins of the others”. What is important is the religion, the society and the human beings at the beginning of a new era. A man must examine the conflict for himself not in relation to the others, but in relation to God so as to have a new will to build a better society at the beginning of the millennium.

Mr. Adnan Husseini: Allow me to speak in Arabic as we are in Arab Jerusalem. I would like to thank PASSIA for supporting this initiative which has always been working on calling for unity in Jerusalem under these hard conditions. We have had several meetings and dialogue sessions between Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem very recently on this subject. These meetings were also attended by political factions, and these meetings made it possible to bring us together in order to better understand each other. Occupation policies and practices put us in a very difficult situation and forced us to live separately on an individual basis rather than as a community. These meetings have made it possible to bring us together and to work together in order to stand together, to face the challenges together and build the future together.

The visit of the Pope is very important, and we are making the preparations to receive him. It is very important that we prepare our homework for such an historical visit that we welcome. We should have a unified position vis-à-vis the visit of the Pope and not allow any others to infiltrate this united position when we welcome the Pope. There was so much exaggeration in what we heard from the Israeli and other media in preparation for the visit. I believe that this does not come out of respect for such a historical visit.

It is worthwhile mentioning that the Pope will visit Al-Buraq/the Wailing Wall. He will not be received by the Jewish religious personalities there.

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi: What about the visit to Al-Haram Ash-Sharif?

Mr. Adnan Husseini: The visit of the Pope to Al-Aqsa Mosque is very important to the Muslims, and he will be received warmly as expected by us. The Pope will be honoring us with his visit, and we should give him the highest possible respect for this.

What I want to add here is that we should make sure that the Israelis do not use this visit to take particular advantages. Since early February, the Israelis have tried to dictate to us the details of the visit and related preparations. They wanted to impose rules on us for meeting the Pope. They tried to use the pretext of security to desecrate the holy places, knowing that the Muslims will not accept this. They are also trying to use this visit to secure a presence in this sacred place. We consider this a very important visit, and we should be prepared and cautious. Our position should be very serious and firm, and we should tell the Pope that the Israeli view that there is freedom of worship is only an illusion. During his visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque, we will hand to him a memorandum on the Israeli violations of both the Muslim and Christian holy places.

The Israelis will have the upper hand in trying to use the visit to influence the question of Jerusalem. We are aware of this and are taking precautions because the religious component of the Jerusalem question is a major element in deciding the future of the city. This is why our position as Palestinians should be united - Muslims and Christians alike - regarding this visit. We should decide the details of the visit and not leave it to the other side to decide for us and to dictate to us how it should go.

On the issue of the agreement, I am sure that it is a step in the right direction. I should be frank in saying that the previous agreement with Israel in the early 1970s created distrust and confusion in Palestinian eyes, as I do not think that the practice of religion in Jerusalem can be separate from the political situation. The road blocks and the siege around Jerusalem forbid the people to come to worship in Jerusalem. If there is no political solution for the question of Jerusalem, I do not think that free worship will be possible.

In regards to the third item, the confession of the Pope before the world shows the will and the strength of a great, courageous man, and, of course, we respect him for this. For us, as Palestinians, we see it as a positive sign, and we hope that the others will follow this sign. The visit of the Pope is very important for us, and we hope that it will be successful.

We hope that this kind of meeting will strengthen our positions as Muslim and Christian Palestinians. We hope that we are on the right track to promote understanding and to work together. Thank you.


Participant: About the issue of Jerusalem, could you please tell us about the agreement between Israel and the Vatican?

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: In the agreement between Israel and the Holy See, there is no mention of Jerusalem. The mention of Jerusalem is only in the agreement between the Palestinian PLO and the Holy See. In the agreement with Israel, there is not a single mention of the issue of Jerusalem.

Mr. Adnan Husseini: We are against any agreement that is directly or indirectly connected to Jerusalem while there are on-going negotiations on this issue.

As to the issue of the confession, it reflects his strong personality. Our case is totally different from the issue in the confession - this issue does not necessarily concern us. The confession was more about issues that concern the Jews, and this is for the Vatican to decide. I have a big problem, and I do not want to go through different dark tunnels and lose my vision.

Participant: I would like to know your position on the confession issue.

Mr. Adnan Husseini: My position is that we should invest our efforts in the historical visit of the Pope in our best interests. We should not deal with details. I am not going to mention the Holocaust - This is not my business.

Participant: Why did you call thidocument ‘juridical’ and not ‘political’? Is it your personal interpretation?

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: It is not my personal interpretation; it is the official nature of the document. I did explain why, but I would like to add that until there is a political solution for the problem of Jerusalem, it will be difficult to have religious freedom. This is correct; I agree, but I would like to take an opportunity to make a distinction on the position of the Holy See concerning the issue of Jerusalem. Sure, there is a political aspect to this problem, and the political parties are responsible for solving it. The position of the Holy See is this - and I will try to express it as clearly as possible: It affirms the religious aspect of the city. Whosoever will have jurisdiction over Jerusalem should guarantee the equality of rights, the freedom of religion, the freedom of access and the opportunity for development to the Holy Places, the three religions and the community.

Now, why is it a ‘juridical religious’ document? According to the Oslo agreement, the PLO is not yet permitted to establish a political agreement. We have been very careful to word the agreement in juridical and religious terms. Of course, though the visit of the Pope will largely be a religious visit, it will have also political repercussions. This agreement, which is strictly worded in legal and religious terminology, will also have some political repercussions.

Participant: I would like to hear your reflections on the issue of the timing of the agreement and the confession.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: Everybody is asking about the timing. We finished the text of the agreement just one month before it was signed. Then, we had to perform all the necessary formalities and prepare everything for the official signature.

As to the timing of the confession, this is a totally different issue. It was the first Sunday of Lent, a time of penance and repentance in the Catholic church as well as a time of purification to prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord and our own resurrection - spiritual and human. So, the confession was made exactly on the first Sunday of Lent, liturgical time of penance, repentance and purification.

Participant: It has no relation whatsoever to the visit of the Pope?

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: Not at all. I hear constantly that the Israelis will utilize this visit for their own interests. This is an inferiority complex that should not succeed. You, as Palestinians, maybe technologically speaking are not at the same level, but you are not less capable than the Israelis of selling your image. This fear that the Israeli opinion represents general public opinion is negative. A more positive reaction would be to remember that we will have here in Jerusalem around 3000 journalists. They are the eyes of the world; so let us show to the world what we are, what we want and what we are building without feeling inferior to anyone.

The Pope's visit has been prepared by the Vatican Delegation, together with Israeli and Palestinian authorities. It has been the fruit of agreements imposed by no one in particular. My guiding principle in preparing the visit has been to respect the desire of the Pope to make a spiritual pilgrimage and not a political visit.

Participant: I want to ask Your Excellency, concerning the arrangements for the visit of His Holiness to Jerusalem, did you coordinate with the Palestinian Authority concerning his visit to Al-Haram Ash-Sharif and to the Holy Sepulchre?

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: In the Holy Sepulchre, there will be neither Israeli nor Palestinian authorities. It will be a religious act only.

In arranging for the visit to the mosque, I met with the Mufti three times. I went alone so as not to interfere with the arrangements between the Israeli security and the Mufti.

Participant: The Israelis say that the arrangements for the visit to the Holy Sepulchre were made by Mr. Uri Ore. I am raising this issue because the Israeli security is preparing itself to be there and to check everybody. Moreover, the people who will be allowed in are supposed to get permission from the Israeli police.

We consider this visit to the Holy places to be very important, especially as Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem, but yet there is no meeting between the Pope and the Palestinian Christians.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: Thank you. Concerning the question of the Holy Sepulchre, things should be clear. No political authority will be there. As to security, make distinction between security and the political authority as such. Security must be guaranteed. The Israeli security is in charge of making the arrangements for the security of the Pope.

How can you say that there is no meeting with the Christians? There is a mass in Bethlehem, where there will be 6.500 Christians and Muslims - as those Muslims who would like to participate are free to do so. Also, no permit from the police is necessary there, just a pass issued by the police, as will be the case at the Holy Sepulchre. At the Mount of Beatitudes, there will be 30.000 Palestinians. Now, if you want to meet personally with the Pope, I understand, but you have to understand that it is impossible for every Christian in the Holy Land to meet the Pope personally. I received around 500 requests from institutions and personalities to meet the Pope for 2 minutes, but 2 minutes multiplied by 500 makes already 1000 minutes. This is not possible. In the Basilica of Nazareth, how can you say that the Pope is not meeting the people? Who will be there? In the Holy Sepulchre, there will be 450 people. It is small, as many of the Holy Places are. We do not have big Holy Places where we can make a great ceremony, but the visit is not only for the Leaders of the Church. There is only one Ecumenical meeting. The visit is substantially for meetings, speeches and communication with the faithful of the Holy Land, with the people of the Holy Land.

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi: What do you think, Adnan, of the Israelis’ role in controlling and directing the historical visit of the Pope under the pretext of security arrangements?

Mr. Adnan Husseini: If we look at the details, we will notice the handprints of the Israelis throughout. We are used to seeing this kind of evidence in our daily lives from the beginning of the occupation until this day. We know their methods; we know their spirit in dealing with things. So, in the visit to the Holy Sepulchre and to the mosque, it is quite clear that they are involved and that they are imposing on the Holy See under the umbrella of security. There is no doubt about that. I cannot understand why they need 17.000 policemen to accompany the Pope during his visit. They said first that, during the visit of the Pope, they would employ 50.000 security personnel. They do not even have 50.000 policemen in total! Sometimes they exaggerate to show the world that they are paying a great deal of attention to the visit. They are trying to show that they think about religious people and that they are ‘fit’ to take care of the Holy Places. We can read all of these things into their preparations. There is no doubt that they are using this security umbrella, but let me remind you that under the umbrella of security, they occupied the lands all around Palestine. It is something familiar to us; it is not something new.

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi: Let me put it this way. In the holy month of fasting in Ramadan, on Fridays, there used to be nearly half a million people in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and there were not 15.000 Israeli forces providing security at the sights, interfering with the worshipers. If the Muslim custodians at these sights today demand that the Israelis distance themselves from such a visit and leave preparations to the Muslims for His Holiness's visit to the mosque, do you think that the Israelis would consider it? Do you think that we can approach them with such a clear request? These are our holy sights. We do not want your presence, and we demand full control by our own people for this visit. Can you ask them this?

Mr. Adnan Husseini: Well, this is what we are going tdo: We will pay a lot of attention to security so as not to make mistakes, but we are not going to make the security something insulting or unacceptable.

Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi: Do you support him on this?

Archbishop Pietro Sambi: I think that this is the correct position, but I can not interfere in security issues because, if something happens, the answer will be ‘It is your responsibility because you did not allow us in’. During official visits in many countries - not only for the visit of the Pope, but also for the visit of important personalities - the responsibility for security is in the hands of the security services of the country. For Jerusalem, there is a special situation, and de facto there is only Israeli security in Jerusalem. I cannot interfere inside the mosque. I said to the Mufti from the beginning that this is not an issue that I have to deal with. I told him ‘This is your house and you have to know how to protect your house along with the Israeli security.'

Mr. Adnan Husseini: If you coordinate with the Mufti, and we coordinate everything together, then the result is something that nobody coordinated. This is my advice: I like to hear from all parties, to collect all the materials and then to make my decision. We are not going to accept all their arrangements. For instance, they wanted four cars, the car for the Pope and three other cars to accompany him - one for the cardinals, one as a medical emergency car and the last one as a security car. All of these cars are supposed to come inside the mosque. I am sure that the emergency car will have Israeli flags on it, so it will create some tension with our people. As for the security car, the car of the Pope will be driven slowly, so there is no need for the security car inside the mosque. They can accompany the Pope's car on foot, as it is only a small distance. They are trying to do things that are not logical, and this is not coordination. Nobody can coordinate with this kind of thinking. At the end, they want to do what they have in mind. Imagine that they wanted us to allow the security forces to check every part of the mosque from the early morning. They wanted full control of everyone entering the mosque starting from the morning prayer at 5 a.m. They wanted to force certain inappropriate measures on us in a way as to make the Pope’s visit unacceptable to our people in order to hurt our cause. This is the kind of thinking that they have always had.