Zion Evrony, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, said many Israelis are excited about the impending papal visit to the Holy Land, and he believes Pope Francis could “pave the way” towards peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He also says the visit will give a “further push” towards resolving outstanding issues over property rights and tax exemptions for Church property in Israel.
Evrony did not give a definitive answer on the sovereignty of the Cenacle (Upper Room), but in comments reported in the Times of Israel May 15, he said Israel has “no intention” of giving the Holy See sovereignty or ownership over the holy site, which is also believed by Jews to be the site of the tomb of King David.
The ambassador gave the following interview to the Register May 15 via email.
What are your hopes and expectations from this visit, both in terms of bringing peace to the region and Israeli-Holy See relations?
The visit of Pope Francis in Israel is of great historic importance. It is another milestone in the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people and between Israel and the Holy See. This is the fourth papal visit and third that includes many official elements, which make it a kind of tradition. I am certain that the visit will further strengthen our relations with the Holy See.
The Pope is a man of peace and brings with him a message of peace. He is a spiritual leader with global importance, status and influence over more than a billion believers. Spiritual religious leaders and interreligious dialogue can sometimes pave the way for a dialogue between nations; it can lower the animosity between the two sides, create more trust and build bridges to peace.
How important is this visit to Israelis, and do they believe the Pope can really help to bring peace?
There is much excitement and anticipation in Israel. All Israelis, regardless of their religious affiliation, are looking forward to greeting Pope Francis and his delegation with an open heart and most warmly. He will be a most honored guest. He will be welcomed as a true friend of the Jewish people. His visit will be a moving, important event.
Several disputes and unresolved agreements exist between the Holy See and Israel, namely issues surrounding the Fundamental Agreement and territorial rights to the Cenacle. How could this visit help to resolve these issues?
Nearly 20 years after the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See (which was signed on December 1993 and entered into force in March 1994), it seems like the negotiations regarding the financial agreement are nearing conclusion. We recently have solved and overcome some important obstacles, but there is still some work to be done before we can finally sign it.
Ending the negotiations and signing the agreement is an interest of the two sides: Israel and the Holy See. We are approaching the finish line, but there are still a few unresolved issues. These issues are of a practical property nature and taxation. I believe that the Pope’s visit will give a further push to the conclusion of the agreement.
Regarding the Cenacle, the land of Israel includes many historical and religious sites. There are some sites that are holy to more than one religion and which stir strong emotions to all and raise complex questions. To achieve a fair solution, we have to take into consideration all these sensitive issues. We have to find solutions that will take into account the religious feelings of members of all religions involved.
How optimistic are you that the Fundamental Agreement will be resolved this year?
I am optimistic that the agreement will be signed in the near future.
Another round of negotiations will take place this summer in Rome. Ending the negotiations and signing the agreement is an interest of both sides.
Some are disappointed that the visit is so short. How does the Israeli government view this?
The decision about the length of the visit was made by the Vatican in coordination with Israel. Although his visit is shorter than those of his two predecessors, it is important to remember that it is his first visit outside Italy, considering that the visit to Brazil was a decision of his predecessor.
We hope that in the future he will visit Israel again for a longer period.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.