09/03/2004, 00.00
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American influence on the Vatican-Israel dialogue

An interview with Fr. David M. Jaeger on what Israeli newspaper Haaretz has called "a success of Vatican diplomacy".

Washington (AsiaNews) – The U.S. and Israel are anxiously awaiting the resumption of negotiations between the Holy See and the State of Israel, set for Monday, September 6.  The resumption of negotiations, obtained through American pressure on Israel, is considered by many experts as "a success of Vatican diplomacy".

Last August 10, the influential Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to say how favourable he was to Sharon's decision to return to the bargaining table with the Catholic Church  --negotiations that Israel had deserted on August 28, 2003– and to urge him, at the same time, to ensure that the Israeli delegation be given effective powers to negotiate.  The Senator of the governing party, known for his friendship to Israel, made reference to the disappointment of July 5 of this year, when the Israeli delegation, which had just returned to the bargaining table (following previous American pressure, notably by Congressman Henry Hyde, president of the Foreign Affairs Committee), announced that it did not have a mandate to negotiate and reach a full accord.  It is precisely Santorum's effort, as well as other American interventions, which the Israeli daily Haaretz has called "a success of Vatican diplomacy".

With few exceptions, American politicians are very faithful friends and supporters of Israel.  What interest do they have in pushing for negotiations between the Israeli state and the Catholic Church?  AsiaNews put the question to the well-known Israeli Franciscan jurist, Fr. David Maria A. Jaeger, who, in recent months, met in Washington with Congressman Hyde, Senator Santorum and a series of other members of Congress, both Republican and Democrats, as well as figures from the White House and the Department of State.  "The Americans," Fr. Jaeger said , "support Israel because they consider it a democratic state that shares the same values as American society.  It therefore makes them feel uneasy that, in Israel, the Catholic Church does not currently enjoy the same favourable treatment, especially on tax matters, that it, along with the Jewish community and other religions, enjoys in the United States.  And an important objective of ongoing negotiations (which began on March 11, 1999) is precisely that: to ensure tax exemptions for the Church, comparable to those in the United States (which the Church enjoyed under previous treaties with European powers and the Ottoman Empire as well as UN resolutions).  Furthermore, considering their particular concern for property law, the Americans cannot accept that in Israel, by virtue of an old law, which has never been revoked and remains in use, the Church can be barred access to courts when it comes to safeguarding religious properties, convents, churches and cemeteries.  A main objective of negotiations has always been to overcome this particular situation.  America's 65 million Catholics, whose offerings are a very important source of economic support to the Church in Israel, are particularly sensitive to these issues.  The spirit behind the efforts of these politicians – who have been keeping the pressure on the Israeli Embassy in Washington – is in effect one of friendship and concern for the Israeli nation. Efforts that would see proper and magnanimous relations with the Church, not unlike the relations the United States entertains with religious organizations".

Until last July, Father Jaeger was a member of the governing council of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and its official spokesman.  In his conversation with AsiaNews, Fr. Jaeger praised the "great attention" reserved for the Church in the Holy Land by the Conference of American Bishops.  He mentioned the "particular closeness" of the Archbishop of Washington, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick whose "cordial relations" with President Bush "have helped considerably in moments of particular difficulties", especially when the president asked Sharon to put a halt to the construction of a mosque right at the entrance of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  The decision to let the mosque be built, cancelled by Sharon, had been taken by the previous Israeli government.

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