The Vatican on Friday signed an historic first accord with "Palestine," two years after officially recognizing the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a state.
The accord, a treaty covering the life and activity of the Church in Judea and Samaria, was the first since the Vatican made the controversial step of recognition in February 2013. It also recognizes the PA as having authority in eastern Jerusalem, the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
The treaty, which took 15 years of negotiations to complete, was agreed in principle last month and condemned by Israel as a setback for the peace process.
Signing international treaties unilaterally is a breach of the 1993 Oslo Accords which created the PA.
Israel's Foreign Ministry responded to the move, expressing its "regret regarding the Vatican decision to officially recognize the Palestinian Authority as a state, in the agreement signed today," spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in a statement.
"This hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement, and harms the international effort to convince the PA to return to direct negotiations with Israel," he said. "We also regret the one sided texts in the agreement which ignore the historic rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and to the places holy to Judaism in Jerusalem."
"Israel cannot accept the unilateral determinations in the agreement which do not take into account Israel's essential interests and the special historic status of the Jewish people in Jerusalem," he added. "Israel will study the agreement in detail, and its implications for future cooperation between Israel and the Vatican."
The Vatican's recognition of "Palestine" followed a November 12 vote in favor of recognition by the UN General Assembly, although the Vatican is supposed to be an apolitical religious body.
Vatican officials have described it as reflecting the Church's desire to see the conflict in the Holy Land resolved by a "two-state" solution.
The PA considers the Vatican one of 136 countries to have recognized "Palestine" as a state, although the number is disputed and several recognitions by what are now European Union member states date back to the Soviet era.
In contrast to its rush to sign accords with the PA, the Vatican has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1993 but has yet to conclude an accord on the Church's rights in the Jewish state which has been under discussion since 1999.
Last month, the Vatican declared that it would canonize "Palestinian saints," and during the pope's visit to Israel last May he made an unexpected stop at the security barrier between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Judea to pray at a section with "Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look (sic) like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine" spray-painted on it.
Persecution of Christians ignored
The agreement appears to ignore the fact that Christians have been systematically persecuted under the PA, which has caused the Christian population in Bethlehem to nearly disappear from 60% in 1990 to 15% last year.
According to Justus Reid Weiner of Hebrew University, in July 2012, a court in Jericho sentenced a Christian to a month of imprisonment for eating in public during Ramadan. "Five other people were also arrested for the same conduct. The chairman of the PA Supreme Court for Sharia Law stated: ‘We have to monitor the streets, and severely punish anyone who eats in public during Ramadan. This is the responsibility of the security forces…I call upon other non-Muslims to be considerate of Muslims’ feelings."
This is in sharp contrast to Western societies, where the majority is usually called upon to be considerate of the minority.
“The Palestinian Land Law prescribes the death penalty for selling land to Jews. Various Christians have testified that it is also enforced if land is sold to Christians. Several Christian owners have been extorted to give up their land to Muslims. In practice, the legal system in the Palestinian territories provides them no recourse," said Weiner.
The jurist added: “Steve Khoury, Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, said in May 2013, that Christians are facing continuous harassment. Due to this, many of them refrain from bearing crosses in public and carrying Bibles. He added that they are often told by Muslims to ‘Convert to Islam. It’s the true and right religion.’ Khoury’s church has been fire-bombed fourteen times."
“In December 2013," Weiner continued, "Samir Qumsieh, a Christian community leader from Beit Sahour near Bethlehem provided several examples of the intimidation the Christian community faces. He showed some examples of souvenirs sold by Christians around Bethlehem’s Manger Square, including t-shirts of the Church of Nativity which do not bear crosses as would be customary. On another occasion Qumsieh stated: ‘We are harassed but you would not know the truth. No one says anything publicly about the Muslims. This is why Christians are running away.’"