Arafat, Pope Sign Jerusalem Agreement

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel has protested the wording of an agreement signed on Tuesday between Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Pope John Paul II that the PA regards as tantamount to Vatican recognition of the Palestinian claims to Jerusalem.

The agreement, signed at the Vatican, is ostensibly aimed at protecting Catholic interests in the PA self-rule areas.

Included in the three-page document, however, is a section on Jerusalem, Israel's disputed capital.

It declares that "an equitable solution for the issue of Jerusalem, based on international resolutions, is fundamental for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, and that unilateral decisions and actions altering the specific character and status of Jerusalem are morally and legally unacceptable."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the representative to the Holy See in Jerusalem to an urgent meeting on Wednesday.

Israel is particularly dismayed because the status of Jerusalem is one of the issues to be decided in Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations scheduled to be finalized by September.

Like most of the international community, the Vatican does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem, including the ancient Old City, which houses many holy sites.

Israel reunited Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War. For 19 years prior to that, the city had been divided, with the eastern sector of the city under Jordanian rule.

Israel maintains that the city will remain the sovereign capital of Israel alone while the PA wants to incorporate eastern Jerusalem into areas under its control and make it the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The papal document called for an internationally guaranteed "special statute" for Jerusalem to protect freedom of religion and conscience, equality before the law of the three monotheistic religions and their institutions, and freedom of access to and worship at the "holy places."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said Israel currently guarantees these rights.

While Jerusalem was divided from 1948 to 1967, Jews were not allowed to worship at the Western (Wailing) Wall of the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site.

By contrast, Muslims now pray by the thousands at the Al Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount. The PA accuses Israel of preventing Arabs from the self-rule areas from entering Jerusalem to pray.

Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Ahmed Qurei said the PA was trying to raise international support for its claim to Jerusalem. He was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying the agreement signed today signifies the Catholic Church's recognition of the PA claims.

The signing of the agreement comes a month before the Pope's planned historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It will be only the second visit ever to Jerusalem by a Pope and the first since the 1967 reunification.

Catholic officials say that during his visit the Pope will be escorted by church representatives and not by government officials. He also will not be accompanied by the city's Jewish mayor, as is the custom with visiting foreign dignitaries.

However, the Pope will be protected by Israeli police and security forces in Jerusalem's Old City because, as Catholic officials said earlier, it is the de facto security presence in the Old City. Last week, the various Israeli ministries connected with the Pope's visit met to coordinate preparations in what is being called "Operation Old Friend."

Meanwhile, Israel is continuing to prepare the stone alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem for the visit of the Pope. He will have to ride through the narrow, winding passageways in an armored vehicle, forsaking his own "pope mobile" which is too wide. To accommodate motorized travel, the ancient, stepped stones are being fitted with temporary devices to make a smooth surface.

On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a 6,000-bed tent camp will be erected to accommodate, free of charge, some of the 45,000 seminary students who will accompany the Holy See on his pilgrimage

The Vatican also confirmed on Tuesday that the PA-controlled city of Jericho will be added to the Pope's itinerary.