10/11/2004, 00.00
israel - vatican
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Catholic hospitals and dying patients hunted by Israeli tax collectors

Jerusalem tax authorities have intensified a campaign of intimidation against Catholic institutions, in violation of the Agreement between the Holy See and Israel.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - The Jerusalem Municipality is threatening to confiscate the funds of St. Louis Catholic Hospital, if the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, who run this specialised hospital for the terminally ill, do not pay the property taxes, from which, by international law, they are exempt. The Municipal tax collectors have given the Sisters a deadline of the 31 October. At that time they are threatening to seize the health insurance contributions, which enable the sisters to care for some 50 terminally ill patients, Arabs and Jews; Christian, Jewish and Muslim patients. If the tax collectors seize the funds, the Sisters (who themselves are extremely few)  will not be able to pay the wages of the support staff, and the dying patients may become homeless.

 The crisis has been precipitated by the Jerusalem Municipality in defiance of the solemn treaty between the Holy See and the State of Israel - known as the Fundamental Agreement - of 30 December 1993. This treaty bars the Israeli authorities from enforcing tax demands that are disputed by the Catholic Church, until a new comprehensive treaty on these matters is signed between the Holy See and Israel. It is the firm position of the Holy See that the Sisters, like all other Catholic convents and institutions in Israel are exempted from municipal property taxes, in accordance with internationally binding norms, including the 29 November 1947 UN Resolution that is the basis for the international legitimacy of the creation of the State of Israel - as Israel itself acknowledges in its 14 May 1948 Declaration of Independence. There it is said explicitly that the Jewish State is being created "on the strength of the UN Resolution".

 The Government of Israel, however, has consistently refused to recognise that it is bound by its solemn Agreement with the Holy See, and has in fact taken the explicit position in the Courts that the Agreement with the Holy See has no value. Recently, the influential Archdiocese of Cologne - which has several institutions in the Holy Land, has petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to order the Government to state publicly for the record whether it recognises the solemn Agreement with the Holy See. Observers in Jerusalem said to AsiaNews:  "It is possible that precisely because of the impending decisions in the High Court, the tax authorities have wished to  intensify their campaign of intimidation against Catholic institutions, in violation of the Agreement".

 AsiaNews recalls that Israel's Interior Minister, Avraham Poraz, on a visit to the Vatican just weeks ago, said in an interview that Catholic institutions will not be required to pay the tax. The actions of the Jerusalem municipality belie that promise.

 As for the Sisters of St. Joseph, they are anguished. On the one hand, they - like all other Catholic institutions -  are under orders from the highest Authorities of the Catholic Church not to capitulate  to the unjust and illegal demands of the Tax Authorities, since any break in the solidarity of Catholic institutions will make a mockery of the ongoing negotiations between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel, negotiations that aim precisely at a "comprehensive agreement" regarding all Catholic institutions.  The next negotiating session on precisely this issue of municipal property tax is scheduled for 27-28 October, just days before the ultimatum given to the Sisters of St. Joseph. On the other hand, they cannot contemplate the prospect of putting out on the street the dying men and women for whom they care with such love and dedication. But this is precisely what the high pressure tactics of the municipality are banking on, that the sisters will break down, and that their surrender will open the floodgates to the unilateral surrender of all other Catholic institutions. Church authorities will not let that happen, sources in Jerusalem say.

The drama of St. Louis Hospital recalls the similar dramatic situation of St. Joseph's Hospital, which has been the subject of numerous diplomatic exchanges between the Holy See and the Government of Israel. In the case of St. Joseph's Hospital, the Government took the explicit position, in the Jerusalem District court, that the Fundamental Agreement had no value at all, and the Court accepted the Government's position. The Church has appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, where the case is still pending - together with the petition from the Archdiocese of Cologne.

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