The Pope and Jerusalem: An Interview with Afif Safieh
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2. An interview with Afif Safieh Graham Usher

Afif Safieh is the Palestinian General Delegate to the United Kingdom and the PLO's Representative to the Holy See. He was one of the architects of the PLO-Vatican Accord signed in February and of the Pope's recent trip to Israel and the occupied territories. In an interview for the Jerusalem Quarterly File, Graham Usher asked Safieh about the political significance of the Pope's visit, especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians' national claims on Jerusalem.

GU: What is the Vatican's official position on Jerusalem?

AS: The Holy See's position has been constant for the last thirty-three years. It views East Jerusalem as part of the occupied territories on which United Nations Resolution 242 applies. By signing the historic agreement with the PLO in Rome on 15 February, the Vatican made a deliberate choice. It wanted to clearly show the world the Vatican's position vis-à-vis Jerusalem lest any party exploit the Pope's visit to the Holy Land for partisan purposes.

The Vatican-PLO Accord reiterates the Holy See's view that "an equitable solution for Jerusalem" must be based on "international legality and UN resolutions." It views these bases as a necessity, a sine qua non condition for "a comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East." In the accord, the Vatican considers all "unilateral measures" that alter the status and demographic composition of Jerusalem to be "morally and legally unacceptable." In Vatican discourse, it should be noted that the word "morally" is more powerful than "legally."

In essence, the Vatican believes that in Jerusalem there are two national aspirations to be satisfied and three religious rights to be respected. We are comfortable with that message.

GU: Yet Israel's closure of the Old City during the Pope's tour of the Holy Sites was the epitome of "unilateral measures" in Jerusalem.

AS: Yes. To say that Israel "overdid" security in occupied East Jerusalem would be an understatement. It was more like a military curfew. By such an unnecessary and excessive deployment of muscle, the Israelis were hoping to project sovereignty. Their problem is that this sovereignty is recognized by nobody in the international community.

I still remember in May 1996 how the then British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind (who is Jewish and was conservative secretary of state) stated that the United Kingdom considers Israel to be in military occupation of East Jerusalem and only in de facto control of West Jerusalem. This is the consensus of the world, the Vatican, and the Palestinians. When we reach serious discussion on the final status issue of Jerusalem, we will be discussing the future of both East and West Jerusalem. In other words, the international consensus recognizes Israel's sovereignty in neither East nor West Jerusalem.

Our position is well known. We believe Jerusalem should remain an undivided city—I say undivided rather than "united" because the word "united" has been perverted by the Israeli annexationists of Jerusalem—with West Jerusalem as the recognized capital of Israel and East Jerusalem as the recognized capital of Palestine. There should be freedom of access to the city for everyone from everywhere, with each religious shrine managed by the relevant religious community.

That is the workable formula for Jerusalem: it's doable, it's possible, it's desirable, and it's indispensable.

GU: Could you clarify the altercation you had with [ed: Israel's Chief Ashkenazi] Rabbi Meir Lau at the Interfaith Conference in Notre Dame on 23 March?

AS: Lau said, "We are grateful that the Pope recognizes the State of Israel with united Jerusalem as its capital." So I shouted from the audience, "the Pope has never said that." And I was pleased that the Jerusalem Post newspaper noted in its report of the conference that Lau had embarrassed the Pope by his comments. Neither the Pope nor the Vatican has ever made such a pronouncement. Had Lau's remarks gone unchallenged, it may have been taken as tacit endorsement.

GU: But how wise was it for the Palestinians to even attend the interfaith conference?

AS: I believe such interfaith exercises are premature. Prior to such events, Palestinians live under occupation. After such events, Palestinians live under occupation. And the Israelis always try to exploit such events.

The interfaith conference was prepared by the Vatican's Apostolic Delegate to the Holy Land [ed: Monsignor Pietro Sambi]. The local church [ed: headed by the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah] had little input and had recommended that it not be held.

This was one of the reasons for the non-attendance at the conference of the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem, Sheikh Ikramah Sabri. The Mufti is well aware that Rabbi Lau is in favor of the Israeli occupation, supports the annexation of Jerusalem, the confiscation of lands around Jerusalem, and Israel's settlement policies in Jerusalem. Yet he flew into the Interfaith Conference like a dove of peace. But Lau is not a dove of peace. He's a bird of prey.

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