07/30/2005, 00.00
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Fr Jaeger: Israel – Holy See, a very profound crisis which Sharon could resolve

by Bernardo Cervellera

The Israeli Franciscan, an expert in relations between Israel and the Holy See, denounces the cause of the crisis and proposes steps to be taken by Sharon and the Church.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) -  As an unprecedented and unexpected  crisis rages in relations between the Catholic Church and the Government of Israel, AsiaNews has obtained an interview with the Israeli Franciscan Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, a well known legal expert on relations between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel.

Father Jaeger, how has this crisis happened all of a sudden?

As sometimes happens, even in international relations, its cause is completely banal, nothing more than a minor functionary in the Israeli Foreign Ministry who had not done his homework for a meeting with the delegation of the Holy See set for 25 July and who desperately needed a last moment excuse to cancel the meeting... nothing more than that.

But let us go back to the beginning. The story begins on 28 August 2003, when Israel's Foreign Ministry suddenly withdraws its delegation from the negotiations with the Holy See, cancels all pending appointments and refuses to agree new dates for the talks. This is incompatible with Israel's treaty obligation under Article 10 of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, which obliges Israel to negotiate in good faith a "comprehensive agreement" on the fiscal regime applicable to the Catholic Church in Israel and on matters concerning Church property. The resulting stalemate spurs into action also elements of the US Congress and the Administration, and, in connection with Prime Minister Sharon's visit to the White House on 14 April 2004, the Prime Minister and his people promise to resume the negotiations with the Holy See and help them along to a successful conclusion. Indeed, the negotiations resume in the summer of 2004, but by the beginning of 2005, certain minor Israeli officials are once more creating difficulties, and making it difficult even to meet. It is no longer possible to understand their policy, if they have one, and by June they are requested to state their policy in writing, so as to enable a response and a proper resumption of the negotiations. At a meeting on 15 June they promise to produce a written document by the next meeting set for 19 July. As this date approaches, they make it clear that they had not yet done their homework and they ask for an extension until 25 July. But they are not even ready for the 25 July. Evidently they are concerned that a resumption of the practice of constantly cancelled meetings and avoidance of negotiations will be incompatible with the promises made in Washington and possibly create difficulties within their government itself. Hence the idea of manufacturing a wholly spurious crisis on 25 July after glancing at the report of the Angelus on the Internet....  Now, in order to escape American criticism, and possibly even internal government criticism, they had to make their attack on the Pope particularly vicious, which they did. It has also been pointed out that it was written in great haste, full of mistakes in Hebrew...

 But why the attack on the memory of John Paul II?

 This is where things really ran out of control. Since the treaty obligations were made to John Paul II, the greatest friend the Jewish People ever had, the only way to justify refusal to comply with them has been to attack the memory of the saintly Pontiff whom only days before they had exalted beyond measure. It will be remembered that the Israeli government had only just issued a postage stamp in his memory, sending a cabinet minister to the Vatican to present it to the reigning Pontiff!

 You say that the attacks on the Popes are the work of minor functionaries, contrary to the stated policy of the Head of the Government. Is this possible?

Of course it is. The Prime Minister has been completely preoccupied these days with his extremely important official visit to the President of France, with the controversies and drama surrounding the impending Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, with the Attorney General's decision to prosecute his son... and I am certain that in no manner could he have been informed of the shocking misbehaviour of some minor functionaries in the Foreign Ministry, who have been trying to demolish one of the most important sectors in the  international relations of the State of Israel. What the Premier will do now, whether he will take the initiative in trying to repair the damage, or give cover to the officials, remains to be seen. Past evidence is that Mr. Sharon has understood very well the importance of the relationship with the Catholic Church. This is shown by his promises to Washington about the negotiations, as well as by his earlier decision, also encouraged by President Bush (as well as by the whole Christian world)  to cancel his predecessor's (Barak's) decision to build a mosque precisely in front of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Mr Sharon has a chance to isolate the offending officials and to rescue the good name of the State of Israel.

 What can the Head of the Government do to end the crisis?

I believe that while the crisis is of truly historic proportions - never has the Government of Israel (or any other civilised Government) launched such a crude, violent attack on the Head of the Catholic Church, both on the reigning Pontiff and on his immediate Predecessor at the same time, and thereby on the whole Church and on every Catholic, in a sense - it could also be repaired without the greatest difficulty. I believe that two contemporaneous steps are necessary from the Head of the Government, on behalf of his Government: (1) A full, explicit, unreserved apology to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and to the memory of the saintly Pope John Paul II; (2) An unreserved acknowledgement of Israel's treaty obligations to the Holy See under the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, and full compliance with them, including an immediate, full, good-faith resumption of the negotiations mandated by Article 10 of the Fundamental Agreement. These steps are required morally and legally, and should be capable of beginning to reverse the immense, incalculable damage caused almost casually by some people who just tried to cover up their not having done their homework...

 Father Jaeger, it is known that you personally have invested many years of hard work in trying to help build up the relationship between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel - how do you feel about this all?

I cannot even begin to express how I feel...  but let us remain on the objective level.

 Is there anything else we need to bear in mind about this crisis?

Very much so. This crisis calls attention once more to the impossible situation in which the Catholic Church does not have a single structure in Israel that is able and willing to address the Israeli public, and to participate publicly in the national debate. In fact, notwithstanding the manifold physical presence of the Church in the Holy Land, the Church is not publicly present in and to the majority Hebrew-speaking Israeli society at all. Thus, all week, while hate-propaganda was pouring out of the foreign ministry, and those inspired by it, there was no one to answer! No one to answer in Israel, in Hebrew, in the Israeli media, vis-a-vis the Israeli public. The field was completely abandoned.  I do not know of another nation where the Church is so completely without public representation, without even a press officer capable and willing to engage the national debate, the national media, in the national language. For this to be effective, it needs moreover to be done on a continuous basis, so that in time of crisis, a recognised spokesman for the Church is always ready and available, and able to make his way into the public discourse and the national media. So much has been said and written for years now of the need to establish an Ecclesial Subject capable of embodying the Church in the Israeli Nation, just as the Church is present in every Nation, in accordance with the command of the Lord and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It must be understood that this is of critical importance for every facet of the presence of the Church in the Holy Land, and in the interests of all the national communities present within the wider ecclesial community. But then this is a discourse that must be taken up again and furthered on other occasions.

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