The Vatican on Wednesday officially recognized the state of Palestine in a new treaty finalized just days before the Catholic Church is set to declare two 19th century Palestinian nuns as saints.
The treaty, which concerns the activities of the Catholic Church in the Palestinian territories, makes clear that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic recognition from the Palestine Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine.
The Vatican welcomed the decision by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 to recognize a Palestinian state. But the Holy See had not officially recognized Palestine as a state until the treaty was finalized.
"Yes, it's a recognition that the state exists," said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to visit Rome to attend Pope Francis' canonization of the Palestinian nuns on Sunday, and he is due to meet with Francis at the Vatican.
Marie Alphonsine Ghattas of Jerusalem and Mariam Bawardy of the Galilean village of Ibilin, both of whom lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine during the 19th century, will be made saints in a ceremony expected to draw thousands of Palestinian Christians from around the globe.
"This significant event represents an important moment for Palestine, the land of sanctity and virtue, and its people, who are longing for justice, freedom and peace," said a statement released on Wednesday by the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches' Affairs in Palestine.
The Palestinian Christian community has significantly dwindled since Israel's founding in 1948, and church leaders say it has accelerated because of the state's ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1944, there were an estimated 30,000 Christians living in Jerusalem's Old City, according to PLO figures. Today that number stands at about 11,000. Palestinian Christians comprise only 1.3 percent of the occupied territories' population.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said it was "disappointed" by news of the Vatican’s recognition, adding that the "move does not promote the peace process and distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations."
The Vatican has been referring unofficially to the state of Palestine for at least a year.
During Francis' 2014 visit to the Palestinian territories, the Vatican's official program referred to Abbas as the president of the "state of Palestine." In the Vatican's latest yearbook, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See is listed as representing "Palestine (state of)."
The Vatican's foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, acknowledged the change in status, given that the treaty was initially inked with the PLO and is now being finalized with the "state of Palestine."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press