HOLY LAND - The religious presence of the General Consuls of France, Spain, Italy and Belgium during Christian celebrations in the Holy Land can be attributed to the system called the protectorate. What is the origin of this system and what was its purpose?
The beginning of the protectorate system in the Holy Land could be traced back to the alliance that formed in the 8th century between King of the Franks Charlemagne and the fifth Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid. In addition to the commercial, military and strategic interests shared by the two empires, Charlemagne was assigned the protection of Franks and the Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem, forming what can be considered as the first system of protectorate there.
After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 13th century, Spain established its protectorate system when the Crown of Aragon signed an agreement with the Mamluks in Egypt to protect Christian inhabitants and sanctuaries in the Holy Land. This was made possible through supporting the Franciscan Order who were later on entrusted by Pope Clement VI with the guardianship of the Christian sites.
Three centuries later, in 1536, King of France Francis I signed what is known as a capitulation, with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Suleiman the Magnificent, which gave rise to the first French protectorate. The capitulation system granted France the right to protect its citizens residing and working within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. It also allowed it to appoint consuls (the first consul was appointed in 1623), who regulated the affairs of French people, kept the peace between the clergy from different rites in the Holy Land and helped the Latin Christians with their disputes and appeals with the Sublime Porte. In return, these consuls enjoyed liturgical honors during religious celebrations, especially in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In later capitulations, protection was extended to all Christians regardless of their religious rites.
In the 19th century, however, the French protectorate system started to weaken as France faced rivalry from Russia, which considered itself as the protector of Orthodox Christians. Constant disputes then ensued between the Greek Orthodox and the Latins over the governing of the Holy Places, which led the Ottoman government to set into place firmans that regulated their relations in these places. The firmans became the basis of what is known today as the Status Quo.
With the reestablishment of the Latin Patriarchate of Jeruslaem in 1847, which facilitated the arrival of Catholic missionaries to the Holy Land, France faced more competition from European powers like Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Germany, that decided to have consular representation in Jerusalem and seek to exercise the right to protect their respective religious communities and institutions.
However, the French were offered further privileges with the signing of the Accords of Mytilene of November 1901 and the Accords of Constantinople of December 1913, which allowed churches, hospitals, orphanages, educational institutions that were opened by French Catholic missionaries to be given some legal and tax privileges.
In 1914, the Capitulation system was abolished by the Ottoman government, which at the time decided to join the war against the Allied nations and expel their consuls, leaving the Spanish consul to oversee the interests of France, Italy, Britain and the USA as well as the handling of Christian matters during the war. The French protectorate thus ceased to function throughout World War I and was eventually terminated when the British Mandate was established.
In line with the partition plan of 1947, in which Jerusalem was referred to as “Corpus Seperatum”, the four general consulates of France, Spain, Italy and Belgium have diplomatic missions only to Jerusalem, regardless of the fact that the plan was never implemented. After 1967, their jurisdiction was further extended to include the occupied Palestinian territories.
Nowadays, the four general consuls combine many functions in the political, social, healthcare and educational spheres. Not less important, they enjoy liturgical honors in the life of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, witnessed by their presence during the Holy Masses of Christmas night and Easter Sunday as well as the solemn entries of Christian leaders into the Holy Sepulchre, which always acts as a reminder of their role as protectors of the Christian religious and holy sites in the Holy Land