Holy See-Israel Meeting Stirs Optimism

Bilateral Commission Huddles in Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM, FEB. 23, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Recent talks held by the Holy See-Israel bilateral commission in Jerusalem have been judged positively by both sides.



A meeting held last week touched on the issues of tax exemption for ecclesiastical properties and access by the Church to Israeli tribunals, reported Vatican Radio.

Both sides agreed to further negotiations with a view to implementing the decisions, "allocating three whole days of conversations in March and April in the hope of concluding at least the essential part of the said negotiations," explained Father David Jaeger, an expert in juridical questions of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

"I can say that some of the problems that they must resolve still refer, among other points, to the guaranteeing of access by the Church to the tribunals, to the protection of properties of a religious character, and exemption from taxes on local properties," he told Vatican Radio.

"There is a good atmosphere," the Franciscan priest said. "The individuals involved in the negotiations have known one another for a long time. It is hoped that this good atmosphere will be translated effectively in agreed texts. Ideas are available for a satisfactory solution, in my opinion, for both sides."

Father Jaeger expressed hope that these negotiations will conclude speedily.

"In the order of the day there are already issues that await the conclusion of the present round," he said. "First of all, a necessary agreement on pastoral care for people in circumstances of limited mobility, especially prisoners. An agreement must be reached on entry and residence permits for ecclesiastical and religious personnel. There must be agreements in regard to Catholic schools."

"All these urgent tasks await the conclusion of the tax agreement on properties," said Father Jaeger.

"I share, obviously, this feeling of optimism," said the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, emphasizing "the serious intention and good will of Israel to come, at last, to a conclusion of these negotiations."

"We foresee the conclusion for April 20-21, when the third meeting will be held," he added. "There will be a colloquium before, on March 31. We hope to arrive at the textual conclusion of the agreement."

With the signing of the Fundamental Agreement by both sides in December 1993, the Holy See accepted Israel's request to establish diplomatic relations.

The document articulates the regulatory principles of relations between the Church and State, while its application was subordinated to a series of complementary agreements -- to be negotiated subsequently -- that will ensure freedom and the Church's rights in Israeli territory.

Until now, these negotiations have resulted in only one agreement, in 1997: the civil recognition of the juridical personality of the Church and ecclesiastical bodies, but it has yet to become state law.

On Aug. 28, 2003, without any explanations, Israel withdrew its delegation to the negotiations with the Holy See while work was under way to arrive at an agreement on the protection of ecclesiastical properties and the fiscal statute.

Talks resumed in Jerusalem last Aug. 5, a meeting that is being followed by others in a progressive normalization.

For the time being, the question remains open regarding Israel's resistance to guaranteeing the Church access to the tribunals to defend religious properties and the issue of municipal property tax, from which the Church would be exempt, according to U.N. instructions.