WHEN THE VATICAN and the State of Israel established formal diplomatic relations in December 1993, the accord was hailed as an important first step toward warmer relations between the Holy See and Israel. Three years later, both sides agree that relations have improved considerably—even though much still remains to be done.
Leaders on both sides applauded the agreement when it was signed in Jerusalem Dec. 30, 1993, and none more so than Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York. The cardinal had labored tirelessly to help put the agreement together and strongly supported the Vatican-Israeli Permanent Bilateral Working Commission, which was formed in July 1992 to work out issues surrounding the normalization of diplomatic relations. Six months alter the formal agreement was signed, Israel and the Vatican mutually extended formal recognition and established full diplomatic relations.
“In such recognition, I believed could be found at least the beginning of justification, if such were needed, to establish formal diplomatic relations between two great spiritual realities,” Cardinal O'Connor wrote in AChallenge Long Delayed: The Diplomatic Exchange Between The Holy See and the State of Israel, a commemorative booklet issued this fall.. Shmuel Hadas, the first Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, wrote that “the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the State of Israel was the culminative process that lasted almost a century. The Church adapted to a new reality that openly contradicted ancient theological principles: the creation of a Jewish state in the Holy Land as a result of a Zionist act commenced in the late 19th century. The request for support for the creation of a Jewish state, sent in 1905 by the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, to Pius X, is well known, as is the Pope's unequivocal and explicit refusal: ‘The Jews did not recognize our Lord; thus we cannot recognize any right of theirs to the Holy Land.’”
The 1993 agreement strongly condemned all forms of anti-Semitism and religious bigotry. The agreement also pledges both nations to support Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and Israel agreed to allow full guarantees of Catholic worship inside Israel. The agreement also makes special reference to the right of the Church to continue its work in health care and social welfare programs inside Israel.
At a recent seminar at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Catholic and Israeli leaders discussed the treaty's impact on the eve of the third anniversary of the agreement's signing.
Rabbi David Rosen, director of Interfaith Relations of the Jerusalem office of the Anti-Defamation League. spoke of the accord as merely the culmination of a beginning” of a new relationship between Catholics and Jews. Rabbi Rosen, who helped negotiate the 1993 agreement, now proposes that the two sides develop a concrete agenda to permanently put aside historical rifts and current political disagreements. “Many Israeli Jews, particularly those who are most Orthodox, still think of the Church as being stuck in its past anti-Semitic viewpoint,” said Rabbi Rosen.
Father Drew Christiansen, director of the Office of International Peace and Justice at the U.S. Catholic Conference, noted that the agreement also called for Israel to “maintain and respect” Christian holy sites and the right of the Church to carry out “religious, moral, educational and charitable functions” and have its own institutions inside Israel. In particular, he said that the welfare of Roman Catholic Arabs living within the West Bank and Gaza must be considered. He cited two concrete examples of areas where Israel could begin to make relations a bit smoother. First, the Israeli government recently turned down a request to establish a Catholic-run Arab-language radio station. Second, he mentioned the needs of students and teachers at Catholic-run Bethlehem University who cannot freely pass between die West Bank and Israel proper because of periodic border closings.
“The accord is better understood outside of Israel than within it,” said Father Christiansen. “There is a lack of awareness of the accord's provisions among many Israeli government officials.”
In total, some 20,000 Catholics—many of them Arabs—live in Israel proper. Another 10,000 reside in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, more than 50,000 Greek Melkite Catholics and smaller numbers of Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Catholics, and Chaldean Catholics all live in Israel and the West Bank.
Father Christiansen also described the many concrete diplomatic benefits of the agreement to the Vatican. The 1993 agreement formalized into international law the rights of Catholics living in a non-Catholic nation. He added that the Vatican hopes to use the model of this Israeli-Vatican agreement to establish similar relationships with Muslim nations in the Middle East.
Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.