JERUSALEM—As his last official act as religious affairs minister of Israel, Shimon Shetreet, a member of the ousted Labor Party, spent his final day in office paying a farewell visit to all the Christian Churches in Galilee.
The day before, said Uri Mor, director of the Christian Communities Division of the ministry, Shetreet met individually with each Church leader in Jerusalem to take his leave.
Never before has an Israeli religious affairs minister shown such concern for the Christian community here, according to Mor. And, many worry, never will one do so again—at least until its citizenry chooses a government that views Judaism as a great heritage rather than a source of nationalistic zealotry.
According to Father David Jaeger, an expert on Church-state relations in Israel, the formal separation of Church, or Synagogue, and state—which is key for Christians in the Holy Land—appears as far off as ever. Israel's religious parties, which together garnered an unprecedented 23 out of the 120 Knesset seats, are expected to make sure of that.
“The public identification of a person as a Christian or a member of one of the Churches is not something we can be happy about,” said Father Jaeger, a veteran of the negotiations between the Holy See and Israel. “Classifying individual citizens by religion—despite [actual] personal convictions—and subjecting them to different legal requirements is not compatible with human rights,” added the Israeli-born priest, who also serves as judicial vicar in the Diocese of Austin, Texas.
The secretary of Archbishop Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Israel, said it is too soon to tell which direction the new government will take. Much will depend on whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appoint to head the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Currently, under a coalition compromise, the National Religious Party and Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party of oriental Jews, will each direct the ministry for two years. However, United Torah Judaism, a second ultra-Orthodox political party, is still angling to be part of the arrangement as well.
Still, it is not expected that newly-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government will take a much different approach to dealing with the Churches of the Holy Land. Israel's policy towards the Churches has always cut across partisan lines, said Avraham Benjamin, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Division of Interreligious Affairs.
Accordingly, the outcome of as-yet uncompleted agreements with the Holy See on the Catholic Church's legal status and fiscal rights in Israel aren't expected to be much changed under a Likud-led government. “The original approach to the Church was decided on by the Likud government and continued by the Labor government,” said Father Jaeger. “In these matters there is no difference between Labor and Likud.”
Under former Prime Minister Peres, contacts with the Christian religions were pushed from the margins into the mainstream, said Rabbi David Rosen, a member of the permanent Israel-Vatican bilateral committee. He suggested that Netanyahu might even give his country's relations with Rome a higher profile, especially if the going gets rough on the political front with the Palestinians. Likewise, according to Mor, Netanyahu's long residence in the United States has given him an understanding of the influence and the status of Churches.
“Yet,” Mor warned , “The personality of the next minister can change the atmosphere and affect the future ability of the [Christian Communities] department to continue to work.”
In a country where ministries are regarded as personal fiefdoms by their political appointees, ministers make policy, set priorities and fund pet projects to an extent unknown in the United States. Shetreet, for example, a secular law professor at Hebrew University, doubled the budget of Mor's division, gave him two new assistants and was planning for a third. Likewise, added Mor, Shetreet paid close attention to the affairs of the various Churches, interceded on their behalf with other ministries and met with Mor regularly—something previous ministers generally neglected to do.
“He understood that it is very important to have good relations with the Christian world,” said Mor. This approach paid off for Shetreet in a personal audience with Pope John Paul II, not to mention a high number of ballots cast for Shetreet by Christian voters. “It was like a revolution,” Mor added. “It was the first time the government started taking care of [Christians] at such a high level.”
That high level of interest is something Shas, the National Religious Party and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, the religious parties vying for the religious ministry portfolio, have never demonstrated toward Christian affairs, he said. In the last Likud government then-Religious Minister Zevulan Hammer, who would like the job again, consented to meet with the heads of the various denominations, “but that was all,” said Mor.
And the ultra-Orthodox, who harbor animosity toward Christians because of past persecution and forced conversions, pretend they don't exist. In the past, party activists even went so far as to demonstrate against a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
It is likely that the three religious parties will try to block the Knesset's ratification of as yet uncompleted agreements with the Vatican on fiscal and legal issues with the same vigor with which they pushed through a law in the last Parliament banning the import of non-Kosher meat.
“We're not sure this government will pass legislation on the agreement,” said Mor. “They need a majority of the Knesset and we can't tell if they'll get it, although we also were not sure that it would pass in the previous government.”
A key element in the agreement is the formalization of the Churchs’ tax-free status.
In Israel, citizens are categorized by religion and subjected to widely different legal requirements. Each religious hierarchy exerts control over matters such as marriage, divorce and burial. Jews, for example, are not permitted to marry outside the faith or marry someone who is a child of an adulterous union. Likewise, a Catholic cannot legally obtain a divorce in the country.
Israeli officials believe that the Catholic Church is basically satisfied with the situation, which was inherited from the Ottoman empire. But Father Jaeger charged that it marginalizes the country's minorities and disregards personal convictions and beliefs.
“In Israel, as a matter of law and of fact, the Catholic Church enjoys greater freedom of religion than any other religion. The Catholic Church is free from state interference, unlike the Jewish, Moslem and Druse religions which are state departments,” said Father Jaeger. “But forcing two Catholics to be married in Church, despite their personal convictions, is not a situation we can be happy about. It's in the interest of all minorities to achieve a situation where they are not classified according to religion and ethnicity.” But Father Jaeger acknowledged that this is an internal matter of Israel which has not been brought up by the Holy See in negotiations.
For one Christian community, at least, Likud is a sign of stability and security. Recently, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate privately expressed its relief that the Likud Party, with its unequivocal insistence on a united Jerusalem under Israeli rule, won the election. The Greek Orthodox hierarchy, almost all Greek nationals, fears being booted out in favor of an Arab leadership if Palestinians win control of Jerusalem. “It is a very insecure situation for us not knowing who will be in control in the future,” said a Greek Orthodox bishop who did not want to be identified.
“Communities whose leaders are not Palestinian nationals are nervous about who is going to exert control and where in the years ahead, “explained Rabbi Rosen. “An Israeli administration of Jerusalem would serve the interests of local Christians who are not lead by a Palestinian hierarchy.”
The Greek Orthodox bishop added, “At least with Likud we known with whom we are dealing.”
Lisa Pevtzow is based in Jerusalem.