When Pope John Paul II visited the Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem in 2000, he spoke with much compassion to the Palestinians who gathered to meet him. "Above all," he said, "you bear the sad memory of what you were forced to leave behind. Not just material possessions, but your freedom, the closeness of relatives, and the familiar surroundings and cultural traditions which nourished your personal and family life."John Paul "felt close to the Palestinian people in their sufferings," as he put it, but still found a warm acceptance when he visited Israel the following day.I was thinking back to those events, which I had written about as a reporter for Newsday, when I saw news that the Vatican is praising today's decision by the United Nations General Assembly to upgrade Palestine to the role of non-member observer state. "The Holy See welcomes with favor the decision of the General Assembly by which Palestine has become a Non-member Observer State of the United Nations," a statement said, according to Reuters. The Vatican renewed its call for an internationally protected status for Jerusalem. Invoking religious freedom, it said there must be a "safeguarding the freedom of religion and of conscience, the identity and sacred character of Jerusalem as a Holy City, (and) respect for, and freedom of, access to its holy places."The Vatican's announcement stands in sharp contrast to the Obama administration's reaction.
Susan Rice contended that prospects for peace were diminished. So did Hillary Clinton. So did the Israeli ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor. And those players would know; they and their bosses hold it in their power to make that prediction come true. But, as the Vatican statement said, "Peace needs courageous decisions." And wise ones. The Vatican said both sides must now demonstrate an "effective commitment to building peace and stability, in justice and in the respect for legitimate aspirations, both of the Israelis and of the Palestinians."This "respect for legitimate aspirations" of both the Israelis and Palestinians was the secret of John Paul's success in his jubilee-year trip to the West Bank and Israel. That seems a better starting point than the defeatism the Obama administration displayed today.The Vatican's position on this issue - its respect for both sides - receives little attention among American Catholics. Ever since that papal trip, I've thought that it's too bad more Catholics aren't familiar with it - because if we were, it could make a difference.