The Holy See and the Holy Land: Justice and Charity

Author: Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran


Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran

On Monday, 25 October, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for Relations with States, gave the following English-language address at the United Nations headquarters in New York during a symposium to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

Looking back over the recent history of what we call the Holy Land, from 2 April 1947 (the end of British rule) to the present, we cannot but be struck by the fact that this part of the world has been in a constant state of war.

The United Nations General Assembly Resolution No. 181 of 1947 (which provided for the setting up of two States one for the Arabs and one for the Jews—and which has not yet been completely implemented), the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948, and the consequent modification of the territory by force of arms led to notable transfers of population, causing situations of grave injustice and, hence, of conflict.

It is in this context that Popes and the Holy See have had to carry out their service of promoting peace among peoples and of bringing different religious traditions together, all the while never forgetting the City of Jerusalem and the Holy Places, which were embroiled in political confusion.

In fact, the Holy Land has been a central issue with which the Popes have been concerned since the Middle Ages. Because of time constraints, I will present what the Roman Pontiffs have said and done only from the end of the last century to the present, and I will attempt to make clear the Holy See's unfailing consistency in its efforts to reconcile justice and charity.

The Holy Land in Papal Interventions

As the point of departure for our reflections, I thought it appropriate to begin with Leo XIII's Motu Proprio Domini et Salvatoris of 1887, not because it is the first document but because, together with two brief interventions of Benedict XV and Pius XI, it constitutes a sort of bridge between the two different political situations which have been present in this region.

Analysis of the documents consulted in this regard enables us to identify three periods of the Holy See's activity in regard to the Holy Land, each with its own specific features, corresponding to the historical events which followed one upon the other in the region.

1) From 1887 to 1947, that is, up to the first war between Arabs and Israelis;
2) From 1947 to 1964, with the historical visit of Paul VI;
3) From 1964 to the present.

—The documents which refer to the Holy Land as a whole, with particular reference to Jerusalem, belong to the first period. At that time, the Popes repeatedly addressed the Catholics of the whole world, reminding them of the need to conserve the Holy Places in their material integrity and of the attentiveness they should have towards the needs of Catholics living there. In this regard, Leo XIII recommended that priests organize "a collection for the Holy Places" at least once a year.

During his brief pontificate, Benedict XV made two interventions concerning the Holy Places and the rights that Christianity held in regard to them. In the secret Consistory of 1919, at the end of World War I, the Pope expressed his concern regarding Palestine and recalled the sacrifices of the Christians of the East, over the centuries, to defend and maintain custody of the Holy Places.1 Subsequently, in 1921, on the occasion of an address to the Sacred College of Cardinals, the Pope referred to Palestine, claiming "for all Christians the inalienable rights which they possess there"2 and over which no other right can or should take precedence.

Pius XI made only one intervention on this question, in the days preceding Christmas 1922. Addressing the Cardinals, the Pope spoke of the "anguish in which the situation in Palestine, that blessed land, caused him", and he appealed to the member States of the League of Nations so that "the rights of all Christians in Palestine might be safeguarded in their entirety".3

—In the second period, the concerns of the Popes and the activity of the Holy See concentrated principally on the assistance and help which, as a moral obligation, the Catholic world was called to give to the Holy Places and to the communities present there. Such concerns were dictated by the conditions of poverty and uncertainty, even of a physical nature, in which these communities lived.

Plus XII, who devoted particular attention to the Holy Land in the years of his long pontificate, introduced a new element, which was both pastoral and political, into the Middle East question: though giving assurances of the impartiality of the Holy See and condemning violence "from wherever it may come", he firmly emphasized that such impartiality in no way meant "indifference".4

During the years of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Pius XII made no less than seven intentions in Encyclicals, addresses and messages on the question of Jerusalem, emphasizing that the Holy Places must be safeguarded, that the followers of the three religions must have free access to them without danger, and that the three monotheistic regions had the right to absolute control over their own places of prayer.

On the eve of the outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war, Pius XII, addressing the delegates of the Arab Committee for Palestine, recalled that "peace can only be achieved in truth and justice".5 This idea, which would become constant both in his own documents and in those of his Successors, was repeated in the Encyclicals of 1948, 1949 and 1956, setting forth also the conditions which would make peace possible.

1. In Auspicia quaedam of1 May 1948 the Pope asked for prayers so that in the world, tormented by the events of World War II, "at long last there may shine forth, as a gift from heaven, mutual, fraternal and complete peace among all nations and the longed-for harmony among all-social classes".6 The Holy Father continued: "Let there be an end to dissensions that redound to no one's advantage. Let justice dictate resolutions of disputes that often sow the seeds of further misfortunes. Let international relations, public and private, increase and be strengthened. Let religion, the advocate of all virtues, enjoy the freedom which is its due. And let the peaceful work of men—under the auspices of justice and the divine impulse of charity—produce abundant fruits for the good of all".7

Then, referring in a particular way to the Holy Places, the Pope called for prayers so that "the situation in Palestine may at last be settled justly, and concord and peace may happily triumph".8

2. Afterwards, in the Encyclical Redemptoris nostri of 15 April 1949, Pope Pius XII invited everyone, and in the first place the Catholics of the world, to engage in the work of "persuading the rulers of nations, and those whose duty it is to settle this important question, to grant to the Holy City and its surroundings an appropriate juridical status, the stability of which can be ensured only by common agreement among the nations that love peace and respect the rights of others".9

3. Finally, in the Encyclical Laetamur admodum of 1 November 1956, with the threat of conflict over the Suez Canal, the Pope exhorted rulers of nations to consider the necessity of "choosing the way of justice and not of violence", without overlooking "the sacrosanct rights of the Church granted to her by her Divine Founder".10

—With the Second Vatican Council, the Church once more put the Holy City at the centre of her interest, and its three dimensions—earthly, human and spiritual—have been a constant theme in papal statements.

During this period, the attitude of the Holy See, while remaining firm and specific in calling for international guarantees, sought, in demanding a just and honourable solution, to appeal for an end to the difficulties and "antagonisms of a military and political order",11 with the aim of seeking a solution "worthy of the land of the birth of God made man" .12 The hoped-for international agreement was not seen merely as a static and temporary intervention, but rather as an ongoing action capable of teaching the principles of peace, rights and dignity, as a beginning of unity or, again, as a step "on the way towards mutual reconciliation".13

Pope Paul VI, in his historic visit to the Holy Land as a pilgrim of peace,bore in mind the problems of that region and did not fail to implore "the benefit of reconciliation of mankind with God and that of profound and sincere concord between all peoples".14 Thus he too continued "the great movement of unification of the human race",15 which begins to move in two directions: the unity of Christians and the unity of the world.

The interest shown for the Holy Land in the years which we have analyzed becomes more and more pressing and becomes one of the primary concerns of the pontificate of John Paul II. Quite numerous are the interventions made by the present Pope concerning the problems and situations associated with the Holy Land; these statements have not only demonstrated the importance attributed to that region, but above all the sincere and tireless efforts to seek a peace which, originating in those places, would become also an example and inspiration for so many other analogous situations throughout the world.

With Pope John Paul II, the activity of the Holy See, based essentially on law and justice, moves beyond the present circumstances and looks to the future, towards the interchange between nations, religions and the whole human race.

From his very first interventions, Pope John Paul II intended to indicate the future activity of the Holy See in the Palestinian conflict: an activity based on justice as the hinge and foundation of any possible and hoped-for peace.

In the Angelus message of 11 March 1979, stressing the attention with which he was following the development of the crisis in the Middle East, the Pontiff, moved by the love "which the Pope bears for peace", expressed his wish and fervent hope that peace could be ensured everywhere, with due consideration for the rights and legitimate aspirations of all peoples concerned.

This aspiration for a just solution of the crisis was further emphasized in the historic address to the General Assembly of the United Nations on 2 October 1979. Expressing appreciation for the concrete efforts to arrive at a solution, the Pope stated that these would have been of no value were they not a "first stone" towards the establishment of a peace which "being necessarily based on equitable recognition of the rights of all, cannot fail to include the consideration and just settlement of the Palestinian question".

In his homily for the celebration of the Martyrs of Otranto on 5 October 1980, the Holy Father dwelt on different factors of the Middle East drama: on the Jewish people, who as a result of tragic experiences and out of a concern for security established the State of Israel; and on the Palestinian people, who are largely excluded from their land. On that occasion he called for efforts to make the spirit of unity, mutual respect and understanding prevail over all that divides or sets in opposition peoples and nations.

At the conclusion of the first meeting of the Holy Father with President Arafat on 15 September 1982, the Press Office of the Holy See released the following communique: "The Holy Father, moved by his constant concern to promote the Middle East peace process, received Mr Yasser Arafat.... In the course of the meeting the Pontiff manifested his good will towards the Palestinian people and his sharing in their long sufferings, expressing the hope that a just and lasting solution to the Middle East conflict would be reached as quickly as possible, a solution which, by excluding recourse to arms and violence—in any form, and especially that of terrorism and reprisal—would lead to the recognition of the right of all peoples, andin particular the Palestinian people, to possess a land of their own, and that of the Israeli people to ensure their own security".

This communique: clearly shows the principles inspiring the Holy Father's interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In line with the attitude maintained from the beginning of the hostilities, there is a forceful reaffirmation of his unequivocal opposition to violence, whether perpetrated through acts of terrorism or through acts of repression. There is also a recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland and thus to their being recognized not only as refugees but as a people possessing specific and legitimate rights. Finally there is a de facto expression of the existence of the State of Israel and of its right to established and secure borders.

That same day, coming back to the Israeli-Palestinian question, the Holy Father restated his firm conviction that there can be no true peace without justice, and that full justice cannot exist without the recognition and acceptance, in a stable, equitable and adequate manner, of the rights of all the peoples involved in the sad conflict.16

This clear and explicit mention of justice as a preliminary condition for the establishment of peace reflected the consistency of papal teaching in this area and at the same time listed among the various rights of both peoples the right to existence, to security and to the preservation of their respective identities.

The theme of justice as a preliminary solution to peace returns forcefully in the Apostolic Letter Redemptionis anno of 20 April 1984. Recalling how for decades in the Middle East two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians, "have been opposed to each other in an antagonism that appears insoluble", the Pope invoked peace and reconciliation for the peoples of the land that was also Christ's. For the Jewish people living in the State of Israel, and who preserve in that land such precious testimonies to their history and faith, the Holy Father encouraged prayers for the desired security and the due tranquillity that is the prerogative of every nation and the condition of life and progress for every society. The Palestinian people, who find their historical roots in that land and for decades have been dispersed, "have the natural right in justice to find once more a homeland and to be able to live in peace and tranquillity withthe other peoples of the area".

In Vienna, on 24 June 1988, the Pope addressed the local Jewish community and reaffirmed this concept of justice, as he had also done the previous September with the Jewish community in the United States. In stating that the Jewish people has a right to a homeland, like every other nation, in accordance with international law, he emphasized that this was also true for the Palestinian people, which includes so many refugees without a homeland.

Very numerous are the interventions in which the Holy Father, referring to the situation of the Palestinian people, has emphasized the need for them like any other people in the world—to have a homeland. This is a requirement that derives not merely from a right, but corresponds essentially and primarily to a sense of justice.

Over the years, what initially seemed an appeal destined to go unheard began to obtain a growing consensus, above all in the international community which, mindful of what it itself had laid down in 1947, intensified its efforts on behalf of peace in the Middle East and on behalf of the rights of all the peoples of the region.

On the eve of the Madrid Conference on the peace process, the Holy Father wrote to the Conference Co-Presidents, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev, reminding them of this.

In his Letter to President Bush, the Pope acknowledged the difficulties which lay ahead and expressed his personal conviction that the accord "is possible if it is sought with perseverance and if it is pursued by all concerned with constant sensitivity for the fundamental rights of others, and in the firm conviction that true peace, lasting peace, can be achieved only if the demands of justice are met".

The Holy Father assured President Gorbachev that he would closely follow the progress of the proceedings and recalled that the Holy See had for many years "been hoping for peace for the Middle East, asking people as soon as possible to bring to an end the situations of grave injustice, taking into consideration the legitimate aspirations of all the parties".

In Madrid, then, a new hope was born, a hope which has at times faded but has never been completely lost: the hope that through dialogue and in the name of justice and law the course of history would change and the peoples of the Middle East, especially the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, would live in peace, according to the legitimate aspirations of each.

We ourselves can testify that the peace process somehow seems to be moving in the right direction. For some months now, there seems to have been renewed hope for finding a way forward in the Middle East peace process.

In this regard, the Holy Father's words to the Diplomatic Corps on 9 January 1995 seem prophetic. "Courageous men and women", the Pope said, "who are prepared to look at one another and listen will never be lacking. They will be capable of finding fitting tools for building societies where each person is absolutely necessary to the others and where diversity is recognized above all as a source of enrichment. One does not write peace with letters of blood, but with the mind and the heart!".

We all rejoice at the resumption of the peace process and at the results attained at Sharm el-Sheikh; it is our hope that this millennium can end with a courageous gesture which will serve as an inspiration for embarking upon similar processes and ending other situations which, unfortunately, still await a solution.

Diplomacy and Charity

This brief overview makes it clear that among the concerns of the Holy See the Holy Land has always been and continues to be a high priority, dictated not only by an interest in helping and protecting the Catholic communities of the area, but also by a desire to promote peaceful coexistence among the different peoples living there, as well as by the need for the human rights of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike to be recognized and respected.

This concern has found concrete expression in actions which have always highlighted the independence of the Holy See's activities from factors which in many other cases are different from those possibly underlying various interests, even if legitimate. Moreover, activity aimed at preserving the faith, promoting peace and consolidating justice and respect for human rights is part of the specific mission of the Church, which is universally recognized as a moral guide capable of contributing to the building of a better world.

Furthermore, and with particular reference to the Holy Land, the activity of the Holy See has also tirelessly pursued the objective of safeguarding peaceful coexistence between the followers of the different religions, as a means of showing that the faith in God which unites them can and must be a source of harmony rather than of division or, worse yet, of conflict. This is why the Secretariat of State is particularly preoccupied with the situation in Nazareth at present. To build a mosque just a few metres away from the Basilica of the Annunciation, is certainly not the way to strengthen respect and conviviality between Muslims and Christians. If there is a need for a mosque, could it not be built elsewhere?

Everyone knows that the concern of the Holy See and the Roman Pontiffs for the Holy Land has not only been demonstrated in the area of diplomacy, but has also sought to find concrete expression in endeavours aimed at showing practical concern in the areas of social welfare and culture.

My presence here among you today is linked to the establishment 50 years ago of an agency which originatedin the special concern of Pope Pius XII for the peoples of the Holy Land and, particularly, for the Palestinians. I refer to the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

Founded in 1949, the Pontifical Mission originally had the task of helping Palestinian refugees, providing relief and services in order to meet their humanitarian, religious, cultural and educational needs. It has its central office in this city, but it also has branches in Beirut, Jerusalem, Amman and a coordinating office in Rome. The Mission works closely with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a missionary organization of the Holy See for the Eastern Churches, founded in 1924.

While remaining faithful to its original purpose, the Pontifical Mission, together with the CNEWA, has expanded its activitiesto become an aid organization for all the peoples of the Holy Land. I myself, for example, can testify to the commitment and dedication with which the Mission has worked to relieve the suffering of the people of Lebanon. While I was assigned to the Apostolic Nunciature in Beirut, the Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim, often expressed their gratitude for the humanitarian activities carried out by the Pontifical Mission and the CNEWA.

On the happy occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission, I would like to express sincerely to both the officers and to all their associates at the local level the profound and heartfelt thanks of the Holy See and of the Holy Father himself for their generous and untiring efforts in serving the needs of the peoples of the Holy Land.


The call for peace in the world, first proclaimed at the lowly stable in Bethlehem, still resounds with the same fervour, and many peoples still yearn for the attainment of this great goal.

Today, repeating the words of the Holy Father in his speech to the Diplomatic Corps in January 1992, I would say to all those in the Holy Land who are motivated by a sincere desire for peace: "What a blessing it would be if this Holy Land ... could become a special place of encounter and prayer for peoples, if the Holy City of Jerusalem could be a sign and instrument of peace and reconciliation".


1 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (11 March 1919); AAS 11 (1919), 97.

2 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (13-14 June 1921); AAS 13 (1921), 281.

3 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (11-12 December 1922); AAS, 14 (1922), 609.

4 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (15 August 1946); AAS 38 (1946), 322-323.

5 Ibid.

6 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (3-4 May 1948); AAS 40 (1948), 169-172.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (17 April 1949); AAS 41 (1949), 161-164.

10 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, (2-3 November 1956); AAS 48 (1956), 745-748.

11 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 29-30 September 1969; AAS LXI (1969), 669-670.

12 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 21 April 1968.

13 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 24-25 June 1968; AAS LX (1968), 456-457.

14 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 7-8 January 1964; AAS LVI (1964), 170-171.

15 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 26January 1964; AAS LVI (1964), 199-202.

16 Cf. L’Osservatore Romano, 17September 1982.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
1 December 1999, page 9

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