ROME — Two days after the Vatican announced its first bilateral accord with the “State of Palestine,” Pope Francis on Saturday welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Rome as an “angel of peace.”
The two leaders met for 20 minutes on the eve of the canonization of two Palestinian nuns, the first ever Palestinian Arabs to be declared saints by the Catholic Church.
During the meeting, both men addressed the new agreement concerning the life and activities of the Church on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The treaty, announced on Wednesday and currently being finalized, was two years in the making.
According to a Vatican statement, Francis and Abbas also discussed the peace process between Palestine and Israel, expressing their hopes for the two nations to resume direct negotiations to find, with the support of the international community, “a just and lasting solution to the conflict.”
Referring to the violence afflicting some countries in the Middle East and the fight against terrorism, both leaders underlined the importance of interreligious dialogue.
As is customary, Francis and Abbas exchanged gifts. The Palestinian gave the pope a rosary with beads made of olive wood and a set of relics of the two new Arab saints: Mariam Baouardy and Marie Alphonsine Danil Ghattas.
The pontiff gave Abbas a medallion portraying the Angel of Peace.
“[He] destroys the evil spirit of war” Francis said, according to reports by those present. “I thought of you, you’re an angel of peace,” he added. Francis also gave him a copy of a document of his penmanship, Evangelii Gaudium, which translates to the Joy of the Gospel.
The agreement announced Wednesday prompted a flurry of activity in the media, and even an official reaction from Israel. But Church officials say it has little to do with the controversial question of Palestinian statehood.
In a recent interview, Maltese Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, who headed the Vatican delegation during the conversations that begun in 2013, said the accord would deal with the Church’s “freedom of action, its staff and its jurisdiction, the personal status, places of worship, social and charitable activities, [and] the means of social communication.”
Although the Vatican has referred to a “State of Palestine” in its diplomatic communiqués since November 2012, when the United Nations voted to recognize Palestine as a “non-member observer state,” the announcement generated uproar in Israel and among Israel’s supporters.
An official of the Israeli foreign ministry said the country heard “with disappointment” the decision of the Holy See to use the term “State of Palestine” in an agreement.
“Such a development does not further the peace process, and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct bilateral negotiations,” the official said Wednesday. “Israel will study the agreement and consider its next step.”
The last time the Palestinian president came to the Vatican was in July. He joined the pontiff and Israeli former president Shimon Peres for an unprecedented prayer session for peace in the Middle East.
Abbas is in Rome to participate in an open-air canonization Mass of the 19th century nuns, to be celebrated on Sunday by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square.
Although the Church has declared sainthood on several people who lived in the Palestinian region during Christianity’s early days, Baouardy and Ghattas are the first from Ottoman-era Palestine.
Baouardy was born in 1846 near Nazareth. She joined the Sisters of Carmel of Pau in France and spent most of her religious life in India, before moving to Bethlehem where she died in 1878. She was declared blessed, the last step before sainthood, by Pope St. John Paul II in 1983.
When the canonization was announced last February, the Vatican said Baouardy “experienced many sufferings together with extraordinary mystic phenomena” from an early age.
Ghattas was born in Jerusalem in 1843. When she was 15, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. She founded the Congregation of Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem and “worked tirelessly to help young people and Christian mothers,” according to a Vatican statement.
During a press conference held in Rome Friday, Rif’at Bader, director of the Catholic Center for Studies and Media in Amman, Jordan, defined the canonizations as a message of solidarity and encouragement for the Christians of the Holy Land.
The gesture is meaningful, he said, “especially for those who have been forcibly displaced and deported from their home countries, and to all those who suffer persecution.”