06/18/2010, 00.00
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For Fr Jaeger, a dialogue between the Holy See and Israel can prevent frictions and uncertainties

by Arieh Cohen
Progress has been made, but a global agreement has not been reached despite negotiations that began in 1993. A deal on shared rules would afford the Church the certainty it needs and reduce frictions and problems with the State of Israel. There is an urgent need for a “personal” diocese for Hebrew-speaking Catholics so that they can interact with Israeli society.
Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – On 15 June, the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel met in the Vatican in plenary session. Almost immediately, various Israeli media said that agreements had been reached on a series of subjects in the present round of the negotiations that began on 11 March 1999, including the integrity of the Holy Places and confirmation of tax exemptions for Church institutions. Is this so? AsiaNews has asked Franciscan jurist Fr David-Maria A. Jaeger, a noted expert on Church-State relations in Israel. Here is his answer:

The only reliable information is, in this as in all other cases, that given in the joint communiqué published at the end of the session. In this case, the joint communiqué speaks of ‘progress’ having been achieved. This is also the only information that can ever be given, objectively speaking. The subjects of the negotiations are well known. They are already specified in Article 10 § 2 of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel (1993), namely property matters, fiscal matters and other economic matters. The latter are known to be, essentially, the participation of the State in the educational and social services of the Church that benefit the population of the State.  Of course, under these headings there must be many particular questions. As is also well known, the principle of the negotiations is this: Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. This means that it simply has no meaning to speak of agreement having been reached on any particular subject, since there will be agreement on any subject at all only when there has been agreement on all the agenda items. As long as there are unresolved agenda items, there is not yet agreement on anything. This is the methodological principle wisely adopted by both Parties as the correct interpretation of the mandate, in the Fundamental Agreement, to negotiate a ‘comprehensive agreement.’”

Still there must be some signs as to whether the negotiations are going forward, and how close the Parties are to reaching agreement?

“Yes, of course, the negotiations have been moving forward. It is sufficient to read the Joint Communiqués published after each negotiating session. I believe that a close reading of these Joint Communiqués indicates that the Parties are engaged very seriously in this effort, and that, overall, the talks are indeed going forward. Again, no one, not even the negotiators themselves, can make any predictions as to the outcome and its timing.”

If, when, the negotiations succeed, and the “comprehensive agreement” is in place, what will this mean for the Church in Israel?

“Security Legal and fiscal security. The situation in place for the last 62 years or so has been characterized by the absence of agreed rules on such key subjects as the fiscal exemptions of the Church. The Church herself relies on a solid heritage of international treaties, UN resolutions, and other legal sources, which are not however read in the same way by the State. The result in daily life is a situation of permanent friction and endemic uncertainty, which necessarily has consequences beyond itself. With clear rules in place, clearly agreed by both sides, the Church in Israel should regain a measure of serenity which she has not head for a very long time, and a major irritant to a good working relationship with the State will have been removed. There will be a “rules-based relationship”.

Are Church and State ready for this new “rules-based relationship”?

 “The Church has always wished for it, because of the security and the tranquillity that only a “rules-based relationship” can offer. In entering into negotiations on the Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See, already on 29 July 1992, the State in effect proclaimed its own acceptance of this principle. Eighteen years have passed since then, and altogether, the movement has been forward. Obviously, at the level of practice, a measure of adjustment will be required of all. Let me give but one example: In the absence of clear rules, a certain amount of case-by-case ‘mediation’ between Church institutions and Government ministries has had to be carried out by Government officials specially designated for the purpose. Once the rules are in place, there will no longer be any need for this, and Church institutions should be able to deal directly with each Government department, on all occasions, on the basis of the mutually agreed rules. Of course, this means that the Church will have to be sure to have sufficient personnel conversant with the language and the institutions of the Hebrew-speaking majority in Israel, and will have to follow much more closely, and interact more with, the life of the nation and its institutions.”

There has been talk for many years now, in various circles, but also in the press, of the possibility of creating a “personal Diocese” for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, to facilitate such interaction with the Hebrew-speaking majority. How do you see such a project fitting in with the new situation?

“This is a quite different subject. It is a known fact that I personally am among those who have long hoped for the creation of something like this; much more importantly, it is well remembered that Pope John Paul II already took a step in that direction when he appointed an ‘Auxiliary Bishop with special faculties’ for the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics (the saintly Fr. J.-B. Gourion, who has since died, without a successor being named so far). However, this is a project that would need to be undertaken with great care and to be defined very precisely. In particular, it is vitally important that the other dioceses existing in Israel (and there are several, for the different Catholic rites, the Latin rite and several Eastern rites) not see this as in any way introducing a ‘division’ into the Church, but rather as an enrichment of the whole, as serving everybody, in being able to interpret the whole Church to the people and the institutions of the Hebrew-speaking majority. I myself believe that this can be done, but of course, only the Holy Father can make such a decision.”

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