In less than a month, the pope will be in New York. On September 25, he will address the United Nations. Most news agencies have the event on their calendar, but are not yet giving it attention. In spite of the fact that no one knows what he will say, there has been very little in the press about the pope’s pending pontifications at the UN podium. What is his agenda? For any number of reasons, journalists are not asking. At least not yet.
Last week, however, Francis and company (aka the Vatican) managed to generate a blip on international news radar.
According to Reuters, Palestinian officials filed a resolution asking the United Nations to raise its flag, and the Vatican’s, on the UN plaza. They have standing to make the request because, since 2012, “the State of Palestine” has held official status as a “non-member observer state” of the United Nations. There is only one other entity that has the same standing: the Vatican.
According to The Jerusalem Post
, someone at Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the move a “cheap and unnecessary gimmick.”
Israel was not happy, but at first it seemed certain the Vatican would go along. According to the Associated Press, its UN mission “expressed support for the idea.” After all, only two months ago, on June 26 and just before Shabbat, the Vatican signed an official agreement with “the State of Palestine” granting it official status as a nation, at least in Vatican eyes.
Surely, most thought, it would go along with the flag idea, too.
But it didn’t. Or perhaps more accurately, it did not seem to go along. In less than 24 hours, the Vatican hastily distanced itself from the proposal. On Tuesday, August 26, an off-the-record note allegedly was circulated at the UN. In it, the Vatican made a firm request directly to “the State of Palestine.” It asked the Palestinians to “kindly remove [from] its draft resolution any reference to the ‘Holy See.’” Apparently, the Palestinians complied.
Their proposal as it now stands names only Palestine as making the request to raise its non-member observer flag.
Two days later, after the Vatican’s offthe- record note and in a repentant tone, Rome itself, not its UN office, issued a “press communique” about the matter.
It began, “In accordance with the rules governing the [UN] General Assembly no Member or Observer State is entitled to oppose the tabling of a draft resolution by a Member State.”
An interpretative note is helpful here.
In the United States, “tabling” a motion means indefinite postponement. Elsewhere in the world, however, it means the motion is scheduled for a vote. Accordingly, in this case, the UN is planning to vote on the Palestinian flag proposal on September 15.
Rome’s press communique continued, “In light of this, the Holy See does not object to the tabling of a draft resolution concerning the raising of the flags of Observer States at the UN headquarters and offices.”
The language is an apology, a mea culpa, if you will. In essence, Rome is saying it was wrong to object to the motion.
Accordingly, and in apparent humility, it states that it “will accept whatever decision that the UN may wish to take in this regard in the future.” In other words, if you insist, okay.
The short of it is that if the UN General Assembly passes the Palestinians’ resolution, it is virtually certain the world will see the Holy See’s banner flying on the UN plaza, too. After all, if the UN passes the motion, as it probably will, it would be a diplomatic faux pas to hoist the flag of its one non-member observer member and not the other.
The Vatican’s flag is likely to go up just as the pope descends onto the nations’ New York stage to say whatever it is he plans to pontificate.
What is his agenda? It will, of course, be about the words he speaks. But that is not entirely what his visit is about. The matter of the flag is instructive. The pope’s agenda is also about his persona and presentation. It is about the theater, the pomp and circumstance, of his visit. And in the end, it is about how the world responds.
One year ago, Israel’s nonagenarian president emeritus, Shimon Peres, planted a seed in the pope’s ear. On September 4, 2014, and in an almost unprecedented 45-minute meeting, Peres proposed establishing a United Nations of Religions with Francis at the helm. “This will be the best way,” Peres said, “to fight terrorists who kill in the name of faith.”
In response to Peres’s proposal, the pope said nothing. But his institution’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations was effusive about Peres’s “perception of Pope Francis, not only as leader of the Catholic Church, but also as a symbol of all religion in the modern world. This is,” he said, “a significant turning point in history.”
So far the world has yawned at the idea.
But perhaps its time has come. If the pope is a smashing success, it might be exactly what he and the Vatican are hoping to use to establish a United Nations of Religion with Francis as its head. In such a time as this.
The author heads up the Middle East division of USA Radio Network. He is also news bureau chief at Bridges For Peace. This essay first appeared at www.bridgesforpeace.com.