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VATICAN LETTER Nov-11-2004 (770 words) Backgrounder. With photo posted Nov. 4. xxxi

Moral support: Despite criticism, pope met with Arafat 12 times

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II considered Yasser Arafat the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people and thought his long struggle for a Palestinian homeland merited moral support.

Primarily for those reasons, the pope met with Arafat 12 times, despite harsh criticism from Israeli and Jewish leaders and questions from many others.

Their encounters included a historic visit to Arafat's headquarters in Bethlehem, West Bank, in 2000, during the pope's Holy Land pilgrimage. On that occasion, a beaming Arafat placed a medal around the pope's neck to honor the pontiff for supporting the Palestinian cause.

Under Arafat's leadership, the Vatican opened diplomatic ties with the Palestinian National Authority, paralleling the Holy See's diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2000, the Vatican sealed a groundbreaking "fundamental agreement" with the Palestinian leadership regarding church rights in Palestinian territories.

Now, Vatican officials want to make sure Arafat's successor will honor those agreements and keep the channels of dialogue open with the Christian minority in the Holy Land.

"We have no objective reason to be concerned. The best-known Palestinian candidates are generally moderates who have already had contact with the Holy See," one informed Vatican official said Nov. 10, the day before Arafat's death in Paris.

"But there is also a chance, given the current tensions, that instead of moderates, the more extremist people will move in. Unfortunately, these days the extremists are speaking more loudly," he said.

"We hope that, because we all learn from history, the Palestinian people who have suffered so much will know how to choose leaders who can get them out of the present situation," the official said.

In a sense, other Vatican officials said, Arafat's death marks a potential turning point for the Middle East peace process.

In recent weeks, these officials have expressed the growing conviction that peace talks would make little progress as long as the present Israeli and Palestinian leadership remained in place.

"At least now things are in movement. Whether it will go for the better or the worse remains to be seen," said one official.

Perhaps more than anyone who has come through the Vatican's doorway in recent years, Arafat represented a public relations problem for Pope John Paul.

Their first encounter in 1982 prompted harsh criticism by Jewish groups who considered the Palestinian leader a terrorist.

At the time, Arafat called the papal encounter "very warm, very important, a historic meeting."

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin said: "What else can one say, except to express disgust?"

Jewish leaders continued to object when the pope met Arafat again in 1988 and 1990. On both occasions, the pontiff encouraged Palestinian and Israeli leadership to explore new paths to peace, saying Palestinians and Jews have the right to a safe and secure homeland.

From his very first meeting with Arafat, the pope also emphasized that a solution to the Palestinian problem "excluded recourse to violence in any form."

Particularly in recent years, which saw a huge increase in Israeli military actions and Palestinian terrorist attacks, Vatican officials watched in disappointment as Arafat was unable to rein in the more militant Palestinian groups.

"On both sides, there has been a shortage of leaders willing to ask sacrifices of their people and lead them forward," one Vatican expert said recently.

He said that in private talks, the Vatican had been clear with Palestinian leaders, telling them there is no way they can make peace unless they can keep their own militias under control. At the same time, the Vatican has been equally critical of Israel's military actions in the occupied territories, he said.

The pope's last meeting with Arafat came in October 2001, during a dramatic escalation in Israeli-Palestinian violence that included several Palestinian suicide bombings.

During their encounter, Arafat kissed the pope's hand, told the pontiff the Palestinian people want peace and condemned every form of terrorism, according to a Vatican statement.

The pope told Arafat that everyone should abandon their weapons and return to negotiations.

Two months later, Arafat's compound at Ramallah was surrounded by Israeli tanks, and the Palestinian leader remained a virtual prisoner there for almost all of the last three years.

Part of the Vatican's interest in future Palestinian leadership lies in its concern for the approximately 40,000 Christians who live in the Palestinian territories. Although a draft Palestinian constitution envisioned a lay state, it also declared Islam the official religion.

One Vatican official said Arafat always kept the Christian community in mind, and that a future Palestinian leader would be expected to do the same.


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