It was their fifth meeting but this time was the first time Pope Benedict XVI and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met face to face after the UN General Assembly voted in favour of recognizing Palestine as a UN non-member observer state – a status which only the Holy See had held previously.
As the communiqué issued at the end of the audience stated, the meeting between the two leaders lasted twenty five minutes. The two felt that the recognition of Palestine as a UN non-member observer state “should encourage the engagement of the international community to find the right and durable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The language used was extremely cautious and balanced but should be read within the context of the heated protests launched by Palestinian Catholics against the building of Israeli settlements in Eastern Jerusalem straight after the UN vote.
The Holy See made its position very clear in a declaration issued in light of the General Assembly vote. It essentially welcomed Palestine’s successful recognition as a non-member state observer state of the UN and picked up on the issue of Jerusalem’s status as the holy city of the three great monotheist religions. Importantly, Abbas’s gift to the Pope was a ceramic mosaic with a view of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre and the English inscription: "Presented by President Mahmoud Abbas President of the State of Palestine”.
During their meeting, Benedict XVI and Abbas (Abu Mazen) discussed the difficult situation in the Middle East, which is "troubled by numerous conflicts," starting with the one in Syria and the two expressed the hope that "the courage for reconciliation and peace will be found." They also talked about the difficult situation faced by Christian’s in the region and bout how the contribution of Christian communities can ensure the “common good for the territories and the whole region.”
For Palestine and Abu Mazen - who had eagerly awaited a “yes” vote from the UN – the New York victory was above all one of symbolic value, as over 130 states voted in favor and only nine against. Of course the UN vote will have significant practical implications. Palestine will now be able to appeal to international bodies that form part of the UN system, such as the International Criminal Court.
The Palestinian leader’s two-day visit to Rome was an occasion to thank not just the Vatican but Italy as well – the country voted in favor of Palestine’s new status at the last minute, having abstained over the past few months – and to confirm the Palestinian National Authority’s commitment to relaunching negotiations for the peace process with Israel. After his meeting with the Pope Abu Mazen saw Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and the Democratic Party leader, Pierluigi Bersani. Later on, he also meet with the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano.