Julian Schvindlerman

Purple September: When Yasser Arafat first visited the Vatican

From the onset of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Papacy adopted a pro-Palestinian tilt. One of the most prominent manifestations of such a stance took place on September 15, 1982, when John Paul II welcomed Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), at the Vatican. A few days earlier, Vatican spokesman Romeo Panciroli announced to the press that the Pope was “ready to meet Yasser Arafat.” The putative freedom fighter was expected in Rome to participate as an observer at the Conference of the Interparliamentary Union that would bring together representatives from 98 nations.

The Pope knew that Arafat led a bloody group that had been massacring civilians in attacks inside and outside Israel and the Middle East since the end of the 1960s, and that called for the obliteration of the Jewish state. His actions had shocked much of the free world, and while he was the most prominent spokesman for the Palestinians worldwide, a meeting with the Pope would grant him an extraordinary platform and a veneer of legitimacy. For the Pope was widely seen as a symbol of peace, whereas Arafat -at least in many quarters of the globe- was regarded a symbol of terror.

The timing was peculiar. The PLO had just been militarily defeated in Lebanon by the Israeli army and Arafat and his men were forced to seek refuge in Tunisia. The Palestinian leader was desperate for political rehabilitation and so he had secured invitations to Moscow, Athens and Fez. Few diplomatic events like being received at the Vatican could improve his image in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Catholics in the West.

Arafat had been looking forward to this meeting for some time. He and the Pope had exchanged letters and New Year’s greetings, and after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the Palestinian let the Holy See know that he was eager for an audience. The tête-à-tête was “a possibility being pursued ´with intensity´ by the PLO and with ´high interest´ by the pope’s office,” The Washington Post reported in early 1982. During the siege of Beirut, the Pope had condemned the use of “brute force” and had called for the recognition of the “rights” of the Palestinians. The day before Arafat’s arrival in Rome, his archenemy in Lebanon, the just-elected President Bashir Gemayel of the Christian Phalangist Party, was killed in a bomb attack that left several dead and dozens wounded. Thus, the Supreme Pontiff´s decision to receive Arafat caused much discomfort not only among the Israelis, but also among the Lebanese Maronite Christians.

The audience lasted nearly twenty-five minutes. The Pope gave Arafat a medal with his own image, and Arafat gave John Paul II a pearl replica of the Nativity made by craftsmen in Bethlehem. The two advisers who accompanied the Palestinian leader changed their fatigues for a jacket and tie in order to look like diplomats, as one of them would say. Arafat wore his traditional military uniform but did not carry his personal pistol. A statement released by the Vatican after the audience said the Holy Father wanted to see a Middle East peace solution that would lead to “the recognition of the rights of all peoples, and in particular those of the Palestinian people to their own homeland and Israel to its security.” It also noted that the Pope told Arafat that peace should be pursued without “the recourse to arms and violence of any type, and above all terrorism and revenge.”

The text had positive elements, such as the condemnation of terrorism by name, the implicit admission that it was the cause of the IDF´s retaliation, and an affirmation of Israel’s right to security. Unfortunately, these were far outweighed by the negative elements. The statement suggested that only the Palestinians suffered in this conflict, put terrorism and reprisals at the same level and by not identifying them, it left a vague interpretation as to who committed terrorism and who reprisals, and Israel’s right to security was linked to the rights of the Palestinians.

At the audience´s end, Arafat said that it had been an historic meeting. PLO spokesman Mahmoud Labadi called it “especially warm” and compared Arafat to Jesus Christ, portraying him as a Palestinian seeking to help the poor and the oppressed. A Palestinian Catholic priest close to Arafat, Ibrahim Ayyad, bragged after the meeting that now Catholics around the world would stop seeing the PLO as a terrorist organization. Arafat left Vatican City in a car-procession that escorted him through the streets of Rome. Newsweek reported that as it exited the gates, Arafat glowed inside his limousine and raised his fingers in a triumphant V of victory.

The Israelis were displeased, to say the least. “What else can one say,” Prime Minister Menachem Begin commented, “except to express disgust?” Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck called the meeting “astonishing” and refused to attend a mass celebrating the inauguration of John Paul II the following month. The Supreme Pontiff’s call for Arafat to recognize Israel’s right to security was challenged by Israeli observers who noted that as long as the Vatican itself refused to diplomatically recognize the Jewish state, it had no authority to advise in that regard.

In the lead-up to the meeting, Vatican and Israeli authorities had publicly exchanged spats. Cabinet spokesman Dan Meridor said that “If, in fact, Arafat meets the Pope, Israel would view the meeting grievously.” Menachem Begin criticized the Pope for agreeing to meet Arafat, accused the Vatican of indifference during the Nazi Holocaust and of inaction about the plight of Christians during the Lebanese civil war. The Vatican responded by characterizing such words as “surprising, almost incredible” as well as being a “an outrage to the truth,” and objected the language “so little respectful of the person of a Pope of whom one cannot ignore what he has said on numerous occasions, and particularly during his visit to Auschwitz to condemn and abhor the genocide directed by the Nazis against the Jewish people (and not only against them).”

The controversial meeting had caused a political storm, so the Holy See sought to downplay it by instructing Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, Secretary of the Vatican´s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to convey the message that receiving Arafat “cannot in any way be interpreted as hostile to Israel and the Jewish people” but was intended to “further the goals of peace and promote understanding among nations.”

But did it? A mere three weeks later, on October 9, the deadliest attack against Jews in Italy since the end of World War II occurred, when five Palestinian terrorists threw hand grenades and fired upon Jewish worshipers as they exited the main synagogue of Rome. Stefano Taché, two years old, died in the attack and 37 other people were injured, including his brother Gadiel, 4 years old, who was shot in the chest and head. The assailants escaped in two cars. Finding itself in an awkward position, the Vatican reacted strongly. Its official newspaper Osservatore Romano called the attack “an episode of incredible cowardice” whereas the Pope, in a telegram sent to Cardinal Ugo Poletti of Rome, condemned it as a “criminal action,” a “terrorist gesture” and “a manifestation of hate and blind violence.” In 1986, during the first recorded papal visit to a synagogue, John Paul II met with the mother of the child killed in this attack.

During his pontificate, John Paul II met twelve times with the head of the PLO. During an interview with Polish journalist Brygida Grysiak, contained in her book He Liked Tuesdays Best: A Story About Everyday Life of the Blessed John Paul II, the pope´s personal secretary from 1996 until his death in 2005, Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki, said that the pope “had a special liking” for Arafat, to whom, he added, granted an audience whenever he requested it, “even if the pontiff was on vacation.” The positive image that the Papacy had of the Palestinian warrior was summed up in an official message issued on the occasion of Arafat´s death in November 2004. Yasser Arafat, the Holy See statement said, was “a leader of great charisma who loved his people and tried to lead them to national independence.”

Forty years ago this month, the Papacy did its best to assist the PLO chairman in the effort.

About the Author
Julian Schvindlerman is an Argentine writer and journalist specializing in Middle East affairs. He lectures on World Politics at the University of Palermo (in Buenos Aires) and is a regular contributor to Infobae and Perfil. He is the editor of Coloquio, the flagship publication of the Latin American Jewish Congress. He is the author of Escape to Utopia: Mao's Red Book and Gaddafi's Green Book; The Hidden Letter: A History of an Arab-Jewish Family; Triangle of Infamy: Richard Wagner, the Nazis and Israel; Rome and Jerusalem: Vatican policy toward the Jewish state; and Land for Peace, Land for War.
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