Holy See agrees to fly flag at UN in time for Pope's visit

By the end of the month, two new flags will be flying outside the United Nations headquarters in New York – the Palestinian flag and that of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church.

UN recently passed resolution to allow non-member observer states to fly their flags

The United Nations is scheduled to raise the flag of the Holy See prior to Pope Francis's UN address on Sept. 25. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

By the end of the month, two new flags will be flying outside the United Nations headquarters in New York – the Palestinian flag and that of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Palestinians are hailing the move. The Holy See, less so.

Last week, 119 countries voted "yes" to a General Assembly resolution allowing the flags of non-member observer states to fly alongside those of the 193 full member nations, while eight countries — including the U.S., Israel, Australia and Canada — voted "no." (Forty-five countries abstained.)

Seeing it as a symbolic step toward eventual statehood recognition, the Palestinians are applauding the adoption of the resolution as a "historic vote."

The Holy See, on the other hand, did not co-sponsor the draft text, and in an internal memo sent to various UN missions, asked that all references to the Holy See be removed from the original draft.

As the only other observer state at the UN, however, the Holy See said it will abide by the General Assembly decision and raise its flag, which sources tell CBC will happen just ahead of Pope Francis' visit to the UN on Sept. 25.

The Pope's envoy to the UN, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, had originally told reporters the Holy See had "no intention" of raising its flag in time for the papal visit.

The Holy See Mission changed its plans, says a source familiar with the issue, following a request from the UN that "expressed a desire" to have the Holy See flag raised in time for the pontiff's address to the world body.

'No great advantage'

The UN General Assembly recently voted to allow non-member observer states to fly their flags outside the building. The poles have gone up, and the flags for the Palestinian Authority and the Holy See will be raised later this month. (Patrick Ferguson/CBC)

As the central government of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See enjoys a diplomatic status unequaled by any other religion – it maintains diplomatic relations with 177 of the 193 member countries of the UN.

But the Holy See doesn't regard full UN membership, or raising its flag outside UN buildings, as enhancing this, says Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and analyst for National Catholic Reporter.

"The Vatican sees no great advantage to having its flag fly out there, and sees all sorts of disadvantages about getting in the middle of this conflict," says Reese in reference to the resolution, which Israel, for one, called a ''photo op'' and counterproductive to the Middle East peace process.

Now codified in international law, the diplomatic status of the Holy See has been recognized in customary law dating back to the 4th century, Reese explains.

"It goes back to when popes sent diplomats to the emperor in Constantinople, before Germany and France existed —when there were just tribes running around in bearskins in Europe."

Reese adds that the Holy See's legal personality, akin to that of a state, has never been dependent on or tied to physical territory, whether it be the early Papal States (754 A.D. to 1870) or Vatican City, which was established in 1929.

"The fact that it has a few acres in the middle of Rome is totally irrelevant. [The Holy See] is unique," says Reese.

"Basically, it exists because the rest of the world accepts it," he says. "And international law is very respectful of tradition."

No vote? No problem

After Switzerland — the first state to obtain Permanent Observer status, in 1946 — decided to join the UN as a full member in 2002, there was an internal debate at the Vatican on whether to follow suit.

"There were some who were in favour of full membership," said Archbishop Auza during a recent interview at the Holy See Mission to the UN.

''In the end, John Paul II, who was very sick at the time, decided that we should remain an observer state."

As such, the Holy See, like the Palestinian Authority, can only speak in the General Assembly after member states have finished talking. It cannot put forward candidates for various UN offices and it does not have the right to vote on resolutions.

"I know that some people still don't understand why we don't want to vote," Auza says. "The primary reason… is that we want to maintain our political neutrality."

Palestinians officials are hoping President Mahmoud Abbas can raise their flag after he addresses the General Assembly's annual gathering of world leaders on Sept. 30. (Majdi Mohammed/Reuters)

Auza argues that the decision to remain an observer state does not prevent the Holy See from participating in debates and making its position known on all UN matters. 

There is an "independence to be able to express your position in a very specific manner [without] submitting yourself to a formula that is presented to you," says Auza.

The Palestinians, who are seeking full UN membership, essentially pulled the Holy See into the flag debate, just two months after signing a historic first treaty formalizing the Vatican's support for Palestinian statehood.

The flag of the Holy See will go up without any fanfare, CBC was told, sometime in the coming days, and will be flying by the time the Palestinians hold their own flag-raising ceremony on Sept. 30. That's the day Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, addresses the UN General Assembly.

Many diplomats and others have been invited to celebrate the moment, which the Palestinian envoy to the UN has called a "glorious day."


Melissa Kent


Melissa Kent is a producer with CBC News covering the United Nations from its headquarters in New York City. @KentUNCBC


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