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Israeli Envoy: Vatican Agreement Near

Israel and the Vatican are nearing a comprehensive agreement on a range of issues after a decade of arduous negotiations, according to Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See.

Oded Ben Hur told reporters on Monday that he was expecting both sides to conclude their talks toward the end of the year or in the first few months of 2005.

After Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1993, they decided to launch discussions on an array of issues, most notably the rights of Catholics and the status of Catholic clergy and properties in Israel, that were supposed to be enshrined in a series of follow-up agreements knows as concordats. Catholic officials have criticized Israel for the slow progress and Israel walked out of negotiations because of disagreements over property and tax exemptions last year.

Ben Hur acknowledged that Israel had not given the issue enough attention over the past decade but stressed that the Sharon government had come to realize the urgency of reaching an agreement since it would provide much needed international support at a time when Jerusalem is widely criticized for its policies towards the Palestinians.

While he refused to discuss the remaining differences, he expressed confidence they would be overcome thanks to the newfound political interest of both sides to reach an accord.

Ben Hur held out hope for improved relations between Israel and the 1.2 billion Catholics, urging more pilgrims to come to the Middle East and stressing the need for Jews and Catholics to seek common ground against the “common enemy” of radical Islam.

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