An Unfulfilled Vow to Vatican Continues To Vex Ties as Pope Heads for Israel

New Analysis

By J.J. Goldberg

Published May 07, 2009.
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When Israeli President Shimon Peres proposed on May 3 that Israel let the Vatican take control of several local Christian sites, he was attacked by Cabinet ministers and political foes who accused him of groveling before foreigners and undermining Israel’s sovereignty. One Jerusalem Post reader suggested online that Israel give Peres to the Vatican instead.

In fact, Peres’s proposal was one of several explored by Israeli officials as a gesture to Pope Benedict XVI on his upcoming visit. It was part of what observers said was an urgent effort to greet the pontiff with signs of progress in a bundle of disputes that have troubled Vatican-Israeli relations for decades, sometimes spilling over into worldwide Catholic-Jewish relations.

Unlike better-known interfaith tiffs over historic intolerance, these squabbles are more typically Middle Eastern. That is, they are fights over real estate — the Vatican’s right to own property in Israel, and Israel’s right to tax that property. And like other squabbles in the region, they still seem hopelessly far from resolution.

Church officials accuse Israel of foot-dragging. Israel had committed itself, as part of the 1993 Vatican-Israeli accord on diplomatic relations, to negotiate in good faith for a speedy resolution of the decades-old property disputes. Sixteen years later, almost nothing has been settled.

Despite its seeming banality, the issue has deep Catholic religious resonance. It revolves around the undefined status of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, which has been critical to Catholicism’s self-understanding since the Crusades, at least; however, it has no clear place in the Jewish state’s legal code, and little urgency on its agenda.

Two main issues are involved. The first is the tax liability of hundreds of Catholic institutions in Israel, where houses of worship are tax-exempt, but other properties — from hospitals to gift shops — are not. Before the 1993 accord, Catholic institutions had a de facto exemption going back to the Ottoman era. Once diplomatic relations were formalized, the informal gesture ended. Rome wants it back.

Second is the legal standing of the Catholic Church itself. Individual houses of worship register in Israel as not-for-profit corporations, but national church organizations have no standing as property owners. The Vatican officials say the gap undermines the church’s hierarchical authority and that it even could allow rogue priests to sell properties, leaving the church no legal recourse, said Rabbi David Rosen, Jerusalem-based international interfaith affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

Israel claims that legal recognition would effectively give the Vatican extraterritorial powers in sovereign Israel. Moreover, Israel fears that creating exceptions for Catholicism would invite a flood of claims from other denominations.

Two partly related disputes have arisen since 1993: transferring control over a handful of Catholic holy sites currently managed by Israel — inheritances from the Ottoman era — and easing church officials’ passage among Israel, the territories and neighboring Arab countries. It was management of the holy sites, considered one of the easiest disputes to untangle, that Peres targeted with his May 3 declaration.

But Peres didn’t prepare public opinion, and he got a frigid reception. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Orthodox Shas party, who controls land matters, said the proposal would harm Israeli sovereignty. Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, who heads the committee preparing for the papal visit, told a radio interviewer that Israel should not be giving “gifts” to the church. “If we would be sure that this would bring millions of Christian pilgrims, then we would have cause to think about it,” Meseznikov said. “But since we can’t be sure that this will happen, why should we give them gifts?”

For years, such infighting has derailed Israel’s efforts to keep its 1993 promise. And the property disputes have crept periodically into Diaspora Jewish-Catholic relations, as well.

The church manages relations with Judaism through a special secretariat within the Vatican Foreign Ministry, which conducts a formal dialogue with an international consortium of Jewish organizations. During the dialogue’s first quarter-century, Jewish participants regularly raised the lack of Vatican-Israeli diplomatic ties as a key problem. Church leaders said it was an issue for diplomacy, not interfaith dialogue, but they admit that the pressure helped bring about the 1993 accord.

Since 1993, Catholic representatives have tried to raise their Israeli property issues with their Jewish interfaith-dialogue partners, only to be told it’s a political matter and not the business of the Jewish community. Several Jewish participants said they had relayed Vatican concerns to Israeli diplomats a few times, but had not delved deeper than that.

“It’s a problem. Every time we go to the Vatican, they raise it,” said New York attorney Seymour Reich, treasurer and past chairman of the Jewish consortium, known as the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. But, he said, “I don’t have a sense that it’s an issue that affects the Vatican’s relationship either with Israel or with the Jewish community.”

None of the American IJCIC officers interviewed for this article was able to explain details of the properties dispute. The one IJCIC leader familiar with the details was the sole non-American top officer, Rosen, who is due to step down next month as IJCIC chair. “I think it’s fair to say that American Jewish leaders have not sought to understand these issues,” Rosen said.

Vatican officials have expressed intense frustration over the years, mostly in private, at IJCIC leaders’ failure to comprehend or act on Catholic concerns in the way that church leaders have sought to respond to Jewish concerns. The frustrations have sparked occasional explosions, including a dramatic 1999 speech by the chairman of the Vatican’s Jewish relations secretariat, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, effectively suspending the dialogue in protest.

“I would say,” Rosen said, “that if Israel had acted like this in relation to any other country, that country would have withdrawn its ambassador by now. The fact that the Vatican hasn’t withdrawn its ambassador shows how seriously it takes its relationship with Israel” — and, Rosen added, “its impact on the relationship with Jews around the world.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

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