Case Brief: The Holy See v. Rosario Jr, et al.

G.R. No. 101949   December 1, 1994

THE HOLY SEE, petitioner,

vs.

THE HON. ERIBERTO U. ROSARIO, JR., as Presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court of Makati, Branch 61 and STARBRIGHT SALES ENTERPRISES, INC., respondents.

Facts:

Petitioner is the Holy See who exercises sovereignty over the Vatican City in Rome, Italy, and is represented in the Philippines by the Papal Nuncio. Private respondent, Starbright Sales Enterprises, Inc., is a domestic corporation engaged in the real estate business.

The petition arose from a controversy over a parcel of land consisting of 6,000 square meters (Lot 5-A, Transfer Certificate of Title No. 390440) located in the Municipality of Parañaque, Metro Manila and registered in the name of petitioner.

The three lots were sold to Ramon Licup, through Msgr. Domingo A. Cirilos, Jr., acting as agent to the sellers. Later, Licup assigned his rights to the sale to private respondent. In view of the refusal of the squatters to vacate the lots sold to private respondent, a dispute arose as to who of the parties has the responsibility of evicting and clearing the land of squatters. Complicating the relations of the parties was the sale by petitioner of Lot 5-A to Tropicana Properties and Development Corporation (Tropicana).

Respondent filed a complained for the annulment of the sale of the land and damages against the petitioner, as represented by the Papal Nuncio and other defendants.

Petitioner answered, saying that the complaint should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity from suit. Respondent contended that the petitioner “shed off [its] sovereign immunity by entering into the business contract in question.”

Issue:

Whether the petitioner Holy See is immune from suit from its act of entering into a contractual relations centering on the sale of lot to a private person.

Held:

Yes, Holy See is immune from suit in the case at hand.

The burden of the petition is that respondent trial court has no jurisdiction over petitioner, being a foreign state enjoying sovereign immunity. On the other hand, private respondent insists that the doctrine of non-suability is not anymore absolute and that petitioner has divested itself of such a cloak when, of its own free will, it entered into a commercial transaction for the sale of a parcel of land located in the Philippines.

The Republic of the Philippines has accorded the Holy See the status of a foreign sovereign. The Holy See, through its Ambassador, the Papal Nuncio, has had diplomatic representations with the Philippine government since 1957. This appears to be the universal practice in international relations.

In a community of national states, the Vatican City represents an entity organized not for political but for ecclesiastical purposes and international objects. Despite its size and object, the Vatican City has an independent government of its own, with the Pope, who is also head of the Roman Catholic Church, as the Holy See or Head of State, in conformity with its traditions, and the demands of its mission in the world. Indeed, the world-wide interests and activities of the Vatican City are such as to make it in a sense an “international state.”

As expressed in Section 2 of Article II of the 1987 Constitution, the country has adopted the generally accepted principles of International Law. Even without this affirmation, such principles of International Law are deemed incorporated as part of the law of the land as a condition and consequence of our admission in the society of nations.

In the absence of legislation defining what activities and transactions shall be considered “commercial” and as constituting acts jure gestionis, we have to come out with our own guidelines, tentative they may be. Certainly, the mere entering into a contract by a foreign state with a private party cannot be the ultimate test. Such an act can only be the start of the inquiry. The logical question is whether the foreign state is engaged in the activity in the regular course of business. If the foreign state is not engaged regularly in a business or trade, the particular act or transaction must then be tested by its nature. If the act is in pursuit of a sovereign activity, or an incident thereof, then it is an act jure imperii, especially when it is not undertaken for gain or profit.

In the case at bench, if petitioner has bought and sold lands in the ordinary course of a real estate business, surely the said transaction can be categorized as an act jure gestionis. However, petitioner has denied that the acquisition and subsequent disposal of Lot 5-A were made for profit but claimed that it acquired said property for the site of its mission or the Apostolic Nunciature in the Philippines. Private respondent failed to dispute said claim.

The right of a foreign sovereign to acquire property, real or personal, in a receiving state, necessary for the creation and maintenance of its diplomatic mission, is recognized in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (Arts. 20-22). This treaty was concurred in by the Philippine Senate and entered into force in the Philippines on November 15, 1965.

In Article 31(a) of the Convention, a diplomatic envoy is granted immunity from the civil and administrative jurisdiction of the receiving state over any real action relating to private immovable property situated in the territory of the receiving state which the envoy holds on behalf of the sending state for the purposes of the mission. If this immunity is provided for a diplomatic envoy, with all the more reason should immunity be recognized as regards the sovereign itself, which in this case is the Holy See.

The decision to transfer the property and the subsequent disposal thereof are likewise clothed with a governmental character. Petitioner did not sell Lot 5-A for profit or gain. It merely wanted to dispose off the same because the squatters living thereon made it almost impossible for petitioner to use it for the purpose of the donation. The fact that squatters have occupied and are still occupying the lot, and that they stubbornly refuse to leave the premises, has been admitted by private respondent in its complaint.

WHEREFORE, the petition for certiorari is GRANTED and the complaint in Civil Case No. 90-183 against petitioner is DISMISSED.

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