When The Palestinian President Met The Pope: A Message Of Hope And Challenge

A few weeks ago President Abbas was received by Pope Francis in the Holy See. For Palestine, this meeting served as a reminder of the historic relation between the Catholic Church and the Holy Land, as well as an invitation to further strengthen such a relationship.

ReutersPalestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Pope Francis exchange gifts at the Vatican.

At a moment of despair in our region, and when the Israeli government has stepped up its illegal policies aimed at making it impossible for the Palestinian people to enjoy the right to freedom and independence, this sends a strong message of hope and of the need to take concrete measures in order to bring justice and peace to the land where everything began.

The Palestinian national movement has embraced the heritage of our land with deep pride. Christianity was born in Palestine, it is part of our social fabric, and we cannot envision an independent State of Palestine without a vibrant Christian community. Our vision is for our country, and particularly for the city of Jerusalem, is to preserve the beautiful mosaic that has made Palestine a land holy to the three monotheistic religions. We share the Vatican's vision of Jerusalem being an open city and a capital of two states, where the values of freedom, including freedom of worship, justice and peace would prevail while ensuring that the Holy City preserves its flavour.

Regrettably, this is not the current situation of Palestine in general, and of Jerusalem in particular: Israel claims that Jerusalem is the "eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people", making use of religion in order to gain political revenues. The Israeli government has further stepped up its call for Israel to be recognised as a "Jewish State", despite the negative implications this would have for 1.5 million citizens of Israel that are either Muslim or Christian.

This dangerous combination fuels the rest of the region and prevents a peaceful resolution that ends the Israeli occupation. Under the motto of turning Jerusalem into an exclusive Jewish city, Israel, the occupying power, has been implementing demographic and geographic changes to alter the unique character of the Holy City and separate the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity.

The culture of impunity under which Israel has been able to operate, including its latest announcement for thousands of new settlement units, has forced many people into desperation. This desperation and hopelessness are precisely what we have been trying to prevent. It gave us hope when we saw the flag of Palestine – our symbol of resilience and existence – raised in the Vatican City and also raised over our embassy to the Holy See, located a few steps away from Saint Anne's Gate. The proximity of our embassy to the Pope's premises is also a symbol of how close our visions are for a just and lasting peace between Israel, Palestine and the rest of the region.

We also had a message of hope to deliver during our president's visit to His Holiness Pope Francis. Among the presents brought to His Holiness, President Abbas delivered a piece of stone brought from the renovation works of the Holy Sepulchre currently under way by the three Churches in Jerusalem. President Abas personally contributed to the works in full respect to the place where the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is celebrated. We hope that soon we will be able to celebrate also the resurrection of the Palestinian people into a free nation while we all also celebrate peace and reconciliation.

Palestine is fully committed to freedom of worship and preservation of its heritage, today and in the future. We have the oldest still-inhabited city in the world, Jericho, as well as several sites outside the famous Bethlehem-Jerusalem which we want to promote for pilgrimage. We want the whole world to enjoy touring these places. That's why we have continued to use diplomatic channels to protect such places, including through our membership in UNESCO. We also fully back the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem which have continually affirmed their position against changing the historic status quo of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem.

With the implementation of the comprehensive agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine, that formally recognised the State of Palestine on the 1967 border, we will be able to serve as a model to be followed by the rest of the region. Palestine and the Holy See are opening a new chapter in their rich relationship. The audience between President Abbas and His Holiness Pope Francis served to continue paving this long path of shared values, for the promotion of justice and peace in the Holy Land and in the rest of the world.

The peace prayer led by his Holiness at the Vatican City in the presence of President Abbas and the late President of Israel Shimon Perez, will continue to be the metaphoric icon all good people will continue to work on to ensure that the seeds of peace his Holiness has planted will bear fruit.

Issa Kassissieh is Ambassador of the State of Palestine to the Holy See.