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Vatican and the Middle East


The Roman Catholic Church struggles to maintain its presence in the Middle East.

The presence of the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle East goes back to the Roman and Byzantine empires, to the Crusades, and to European imperialism and colonialism. Following the Second Vatican Council (19621965), Vatican diplomacy in the Middle East focused on three goals: preserving Christianity and a Christian presence in what Christians term the Holy Land, fostering peace with justice between Israel and the Palestinians, and maintaining Lebanon as an example of coexistence between Christians and Muslims.

The Vatican faces problems of demographic changes in the Middle East, especially in Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Christian Arabs are leaving because of their minority status; the resurgence of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalisms; and unstable economic and political situations. The relationship between the Vatican and Israel is a mixture of theological prejudice and political pragmatism. In recent years, however, the Holy See has established diplomatic relations with Israel (December 1993) and with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (April 1994), and in 2000 the Vatican signed a Basic Agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). This agreement called for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the various relevant UN resolutions. In March 2000 Pope John Paul II undertook a historic trip to Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories, only the second time since 1964 that a sovereign pontiff set foot in the Holy Land. Throughout the Oslo peace process and the al-Aqsa Intifada the Vatican used its influence to ensure that the papacy's concerns and interests in Jerusalem and Christian holy sites were taken into consideration by U.S. president Bill Clinton, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, and PLO chairman Yasir Arafat.

The Lebanese Civil War (19751989) was a major challenge to the papacy. Several mediation missions were dispatched by both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, and in 1995 the latter convened in Rome a synod of Roman Catholic bishops, with Muslim and Orthodox Christian observers, for the express purpose of addressing the Lebanese situation. It is clear that if Lebanon were to fail as an example of coexistence, the Vatican's position in the region would be weakened.

see also christians in the middle east; holy land.


Dumper, Michael. The Politics of Sacred Space: The Old City of Jerusalem in the Middle East Conflict. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002.

Irani, George E. The Papacy and the Middle East. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

george e. irani

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