Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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BY EDWARD PENTINRegister Correspondent
VATICAN CITY — Is the
massive stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bad news for
relations between Israel and the Holy See?
Twelve years after a
“Fundamental Agreement” established diplomatic relations between the two states
— and granted tax exemption to Church-owned properties — Israel has still to
fully comply with the treaty. Prime Minister Sharon, however, was eager to
reach an agreement and was seen as one of the most committed Israeli leaders of
recent times to resolving this issue.
stance was encouraging to the Church, which is suffering from severe financial
uncertainty in the Holy Land because of the unfulfilled treaty. As it stands,
the Church is effectively a “tax delinquent” in Israel’s eyes, owing a massive
and unspecified amount of money that the government might demand at any time.
Just last month, city
officials in Jerusalem reminded the Holy See that the Church owes $65 million
in unpaid property taxes.
sympathetic position, those close to the negotiations suggest his absence will
matter little to the outcome of the talks. Franciscan Father David Jaeger,
regarded as the foremost expert on Church-state relations in Israel, said he
remained “cautiously optimistic” about the outcome of the negotiations.
In comments to the
Register Jan. 4, Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Inter-Religious
Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, was less positive about the
situation, whether or not Sharon was involved. Rosen said he was doubtful that
“even if Sharon were to make a full recovery, the issues will be fully
Israel’s Ambassador to
the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, agreed that the absence of Sharon should not affect
the talks. But the diplomat was more optimistic than Rosen, saying that he was
sure “good will, common sense and wisdom will be able to prevail.”
However, Ben-Hur has
expressed such sentiments before, only to see the talks again reach an impasse.
In an interview with the Register a year ago, the ambassador predicted that an
agreement could be reached by the end of 2005. In 2004, he spoke of a possible,
imminent resolution to the talks.
And now there appears
to be a new obstacle: differences regarding the ramifications of the agreement
if implemented. To the Israelis, the Vatican is appealing for
“extraterritoriality,” a means through which the Church could remain immune to
future changes in Israeli taxation law. Israel fears this would pave the way
for other religious organizations, including Jewish ones, to request similar
exemptions and benefits.
For the Church,
however, the dispute is simply a matter of righting a historical injustice.
Israel had already agreed to implement the Church’s rights two years after
signing the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, Church leaders say. Furthermore, its
tax rights are valid under international law, and were enjoyed by the Church
before the founding of the state of Israel and consequently should never have
been withdrawn, according to Church representatives.
The Church is also
pushing Israel to acknowledge “due process,” allowing disputes over property to
be resolved through the Israeli courts. At present, Israel asserts the right to
arbitrarily confiscate goods or real estate without recourse to courts.
“We are not asking for
jurisdiction to be reserved to the international court of justice, simply for
it to be assumed by the Israeli courts in accordance with Israeli law,” said
Father Jaeger. “Is that too much to ask?”
Father Jaeger thinks
resolution to the long-running saga lies more with Israeli bureaucrats than
with Israeli political leaders. An agreement with Israel would effectively mean
an end to the arbitrary powers of such officials to demand taxes from Church
property, with no concessions in return, so they have lacked commitment to the
have also been distracted by the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
“I do not believe that
the Israeli government has, even now, fully grasped or internalized the
Vatican’s expectations,” said Rabbi Rosen.
And while Israeli
leaders would like the Pope to visit the Holy Land, they are unhappy about
making the trip conditional on an agreement on the tax issue. After Israeli
President Moshe Katsav extended an invitation to the Holy Father during his
November visit to Rome, Vatican officials made it clear that the negotiations
over the Fundamental Agreement must first be resolved, Agence France-Presse
reported Nov. 17.
For its part, Israel
is seeking greater public support from the Vatican. Ambassador Ben-Hur recently
wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to explicitly condemn Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s insulting remarks last year about Israel and
“We’re waiting for an
unequivocal and explicit condemnation,” he said.
The role of the United
States is widely seen as crucial to any resolution of the negotiations. After
the Vatican-Israel talks broke off in 2003, they were only restarted courtesy
of pressure from the Bush administration.
Father Jaeger and
others believe the appointment last month of the apostolic nuncio in Jerusalem,
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, as the new papal envoy to the United States could be a
major boost to resolving the protracted impasse. Archbishop Sambi, Father
Jaeger said, “would be a tremendous asset” in Washington.
however, expressed caution over the extent of U.S. influence, saying that “no
one can impose an agreement from the outside because it’s bound to fail, it
won’t stick, it won’t work.” An agreement, the Israeli diplomat stressed, “can
only be reached between the two parties” in a spirit of “good faith and
Edward Pentin writes
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