09/17/2004, 00.00
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Fr. Jaeger: some issues with the government difficult but resolvable

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Problems with visas, taxation of religious institutions, restitution of the Cenacle: Fr. David Maria Jaeger, an Israeli Franciscan, shared his views with AsiaNews, in his capacity as a jurist and expert on Church/State relations in Israel, on the central topics of an interview with Avraham Poraz, Israeli Interior Minister.

For Minister Poraz, problem with visas are "all but resolved", thanks to involvement from the Holy See which would vouch for visa applicants.  But, for Fr. Jaeger, "In principle, from a juridical point of view, that of the rule of law, all norms regarding the issuance of entry visas and of residence permits must not be kept secret, but be officially published, so that applicants can refer to them in submitting their applications, in evaluating decisions and in considering any kind of recourse.  It is clear, that in the middle term, the question will have to be the subject of negotiations and agreement, in accordance with the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the state of Israel.

"The question has been on the bilateral permanent Commission's agenda since 1994, and it would be reasonable to presume that the Commission will deal with it in the next phase of talks."

Tax exemptions for religious institutions is another open question.  The minister explained that places of worship are exempt from taxes, but not any commercial or hotel activities that may be connected to them.  All such places should, in any case, pay for municipal services such as cleaning, water, etc...

"As far as is known, the Church has never demanded anything other than the recognition of vested rights; in other words, that its legal and tax conditions not worsen with respect to those under previous regimes.  It is a matter of reconfirming a law that came into force in 1938, as well as legal and tax conditions that, by  UN order, were to be maintained following the creation of the new state.  However, just as discussions were taking place to record the contents of that law in the agreement with the Catholic Church (that is, in 2002), the Government drastically reduced the exemptions that were to be guaranteed to the Church.  This was certainly not the purpose of the law,  but one of its effects, which the agreement should now correct.  Personally, I am optimistic about the outcome of negotiations, because I cannot imagine that, right after establishing official relations at the highest level, the Government of Israel would want to go down in the history of Church/State relations in the Holy Land for having worsened the legal and tax conditions of the Catholic Church on its national territory...It would be unthinkable, and that is why I trust the Government to conclude that it must make amends for the undesired effect of recent legislation, and that it is in the national interest to respect vested rights and the will of international institutions.  Besides, the Catholic Church has never demanded any sort of exemption for purely commercial activities owned by the Church, if there are any in Israel, nor for the quantifiable consumption of utilities such as water or electricity, which are paid by everyone in proportion to actual consumption."

The minister also mentioned the return of the Cenacle and claims that the problem today "is a disagreement between Churches, on who is to take possession of it" and that the Government cannot enter into this disagreement.

"It's astonishing to hear talk of controversies between the Christian Churches," Fr. Jaeger affirms.  "They have simply never existed, as far as the Franciscan Cenacle complex is concerned.  Unlike the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Cenacle has never been "shared" or contested....its ownership was properly acquired by the sovereigns of Naples, Robert and Sancha, and, with the backing of Pope Clement VI, was donated to the Franciscan Order in 1342.  The convent and sanctuary thus became the mother house of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.  It was the Ottoman Turks who, two centuries later, expelled the Franciscans by force.  Since then, the Franciscans have always appealed for its return to their ownership, which has never belonged to any other Christian entity, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.  And as far back as 1948, Israeli governments themselves have always recognized the Custody of the Holy Land as the sole official Christian interocutor for all questions regarding the Cenacle area.  Thus, there has never been a controversy between Christian Churches, and there must never be one, unless someone provokes one in order to "divide and rule", as they used to say in the ancient Roman Empire."

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