The Roman Catholic Church has for centuries been involved in the struggle for the control of the Palestine, a struggle that historians call the great debate. During the twentieth century, especially after the state of Israel and the second Vatican council of 1961-1965, a major change took shape in regards to the direction of the Vatican’s political relations with key countries, namely Israel and Palestine.
This change was for the most part based on three major factors: the church’s evolving social content, the new Catholic attitude towards other Abrahamic religions, and the shifting balance of power in the Mideast.
Vatican foreign policy, like any other policy of international body, is subject to two variables. The first variable is that there is the overall political environment including both intra -church and external dimensions within which the Vatican which must respond to the Palestinian question. Then there is the personal element regarding the approaches that various popes from Pius X to John Paul II used to the handle the Palestinian question. This paper will explore the following questions and offer answers to them. What stance did Pope John Paul II take to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict prior to becoming pope in 1979? What stance did he take on the issue after he succeeded Pope John Paul I? And, finally what was his attitude in the latter stage of his papacy which ended with his death in April 2005?
John Paul II’s Attitude Towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Early Years of His Papacy: To understand the Vatican’s view on the conflict, it is important to understand how it arrived at the two-state solution, which is its official policy today. Pope John Paul II had a major role in creating this policy, and has had by far a greater influence on the conflict than any other pope. Karol Cardinal Wojtyla being elected the first non-Italian pope in nearly five centuries came as a shock to Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. Poland had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. As a young priest, Wojtyla was friends with many Polish Jews and helped save some of their lives. He was a prominent member of Znak (English: Sign), a Cracow-based group of intellectuals sympathetic to the Jews and their plight.1 Wojtyla was elected to the papacy without having served the usual apprenticeship in the Vatican diplomatic service, and, unlike most of his predecessors, he lacked political and diplomatic experience of any kind.2 Not only was he unfamiliar with the conflict in the Mideast, but he was not very familiar with international politics at all, with the notable exception of the Eastern European sphere. As a newcomer to the political arena, this would have a great effect on the future and the question of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Pope John Paul II’s knowledge of Eastern European Jews, including the ones that immigrated to Israel, was far-reaching and intimate; while growing up in Poland in the thirties and forties, he was friends with many Jews, protected some, and took part in the national movement against the Nazi occupiers.3 What Stance Did He Take on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in the Early Stages of His Papacy? At the beginning of his time as pope, John Paul II was more sympathetic to the Israelis than previous popes, such as Paul VI, had ever been. This was in contrast to his usual policy as pope of steering a course between the two sides. In his first public address on the crisis in the Middle East, he thanked the Israeli government’s for inviting him to visit the holy land. He discussed the political situation in Lebanon. But he never mentioned the term “Palestine” in the address.4 It wasn’t until months after becoming pope that John Paul II finally used the term “Palestinians” publicly. The speech focused on more of a renewal of relations with an urgency to bring in dialogue between Christians of various tendencies and Muslims, and between the Lebanese...
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