01/06/2004, 00.00
Israel - Vatican
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Peace, agreements with Catholic Church fail to take off

Bethlehem (AsiaNews) –The Epiphany is a feast of movement, mission and peace The feast marks the movement of the star of Bethlehem, the movement of the Magi. It marks the creation of peace between rich and poor, between the King and his manger. However on earth, where Jesus was born, this Epiphany is marked by a near immobility. 

Certainly, as is tradition, Bethlehem received the official visit of the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Giovanni Battistelli OFM, who since Christmas Eve has visited the city and the cave of the Nativity. Today he even celebrated a pontifical High Mass at St. Catherine's church, the Latin rite church adjacent to that of the Nativity (under Orthodox care). 

In preparation for Orthodox Christmas – celebrated tomorrow – today marked the arrival of the Orthodox patriarch. Minor scuffles occurred between his body guards and civilians in the square.

There are few pilgrims in the city. There are difficulties reaching Bethlehem from Israel, especially for Israeli citizens and Palestinians from other areas. Yet pilgrims from abroad have all the means to reach Bethlehem. The destruction and aftermath of the events of the last three years are still noticeable in the city.  

Peace

However it is peace which particularly seems to be at a standstill. Within Israel it is often discussed. Geneva's instructions (the so-called "peace agreement") have forced all to understand that peace is possible. All Israelis, in government and in the opposition, applaud or criticize it.  But no one is indifferent to it. Yet, the impression is that all efforts have ceased. The general feeling is that no change is expected until the next American presidential elections in Nov. 2004.

The Wall

Another element of concern and discussion is the Wall dividing Israel and the occupied territories. The government is quite concerned about the hearings that will soon take place at the Hague International Court of Justice. The UN, in fact, has asked the Hague for its legal opinion on the Wall's construction. 

Minister of Justice, Joseph "Tommy" Lapide, pointed out to his government colleagues that Israel, if it wants to continue building a wall, must do so on the border between Israel and the occupied territories and not within the territories (as is occurring, taking possession of nearly 5% of these territories). According to Lapide, there is also the risk that Israel ends up like South Africa, stamped as an apartheid regime.

Some ministers criticized Lapide and his statements since, they say, they could be used by the Hague against Israel. The opposition, on the other hand, applauds him, but asks that he be consistent and quit the government.  

Religious tax evaders?

On the ecclesial front, Israel's government for months now has refused to participate in negotiations with the Holy See. It withdrew its delegation last Aug. 28 and it still hasn't returned to the bargaining table, as was reported in the Israeli daily, the Ha'aretz.

Last Dec. 30 was the 10th anniversary of the Fundamental Agreement made between Israel and the Holy See. But the agreement is still only half way completed. It could receive real application above all to guarantee tax exemption to Church properties and grant them legal protection. However, the government's decision to withdraw its efforts has caused such an agreement not to be substantially applied and to bear many problems.

Church property tax exemption has existed for centuries in the Holy Land, being the fruit of agreements between western powers and the Ottoman Empire. The UN's resolution on Nov. 29 1947, which guaranteed the birth of Israel, confirmed these tax exemptions.

Currently, without a specific agreement on this issue, Christian communities, parishes and religious institutions could be incriminated for tax evasion. In fact, it sometimes happens that religious institutions are taken to court for tax evasion. The reason why they don't pay is because they have never paid. They seem to be tax evaders only because for months now the Israeli government has withdrawn from negotiations aimed at such an agreement and reveals no signs of wanting to return.
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