03/17/2006, 00.00
israel - vatican
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Israel's war against the hospice of the Daughters of Charity continues

by Arieh Cohen

For decades the government and private business have been trying to illegally expropriate a building that in Jerusalem is home to poor children, the elderly and people with disabilities in order to build cinemas and entertainment centres. Catholic public opinion around the world is called on to become mobilized.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - The Catholic Church in Israel is trying to save a major charitable institution in Jerusalem, the famous "Hospice" of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul - together with the convent and the church - from the persistent attempts of an alliance of Government and private business to force a transfer of the property to private businesses. In a last minute appeal, the Daughters have now filed suit with the Jerusalem District Court, but it is not certain that the Court will save the institution without the intervention of diplomacy and of Catholic public opinion throughout the world.

The "Hospice" is home, at any given time, to between 150 and 200 persons, including some 30 babies and infants with less than 4 years of age; between 80 and 120 boys and girls younger than 18; and a mix of adults and older people with severe physical and mental handicaps. Ambulatory care is offered to about 30 babies each day, and a kindergarten operates there too for about a hundred other children, mostly poor, disadvantaged children. Seven Daughters of Charity operate the "Hospice", together with some 75 other staff members, including physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, physiotherapists and other staff persons.

The "Hospice" has repeatedly received public recognition for the irreplaceable service it renders to the needy and the suffering, the young and the old. At its centre is one of Jerusalem's best known and most prominent churches.

In 1974, Jerusalem's Mayor at the time, who was notorious for his continuous efforts to transfer Christian Church properties to Israeli hands, both public and private, pressurised the Mother Superior to sign a contract of sale of part of the property of the "Hospice" to an Israeli business. The sale, which was not authorised by the Church, was of course illegal, and the Church demanded that it be declared null and void. Thereupon, the State simply confiscated the property in order to assure its transfer to Israeli business interests. The Church went to court to have the confiscation overturned. At that point, the State again put pressure on the Sisters to sign a new contract of sale (or "lease for 125 years"...) . In that contract, the State included several guarantees that the Church demanded, in order to ensure that the "Hospice", the convent and the church could continue to function. Thus, for example, an "access road" was guaranteed through the confiscated (or "leased") area, so that cars, ambulances and supply trucks could continue to come into, and go out of the centre; it was also guaranteed that the new businesses - built very close to the Church institutions -  would not be built to such a height as to block the sunlight to the "Hospice".

Actual building in the area has gone ahead only recently, and every one of the guarantees given to the Church is being openly violated. In particular, the business organisation is refusing to provide the access road, thus threatening to suffocate the "Hospice" and make it impossible for it to function. The new buildings are also planned to be so close, and to rise to such a height as to envelope the "Hospice" in perpetual darkness. Contrary to the contract too, cinemas and entertainment centres are being planned all around, threatening to envelope the "Hospice" and its residents, the convent and the church, in perpetual noise, especially at night.

When the Daughters of Charity complained - and asked the Government and the business organisation to honour their commitments - they were advised to simply sell the whole property to the business organisation, close down the "Hospice" and leave... This, of course - some in Jerusalem suspect - might well have been the ultimate purpose of the entire operation.

A new lawsuit has been filed by the Daughters, and the Government has been officially asked to comply with its own obligations.

But it is going to be hard. In addition to the long standing policy objective of getting real estate in Jerusalem away from the ownership of the Churches and into public and private hands in Israel, there is also the economic power of the large business interests involved.

And while the church and the convent are defined as "sacred places" in the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel - which would have entitled them to special protection (under Article 4 § 3 of that treaty), the Israeli Government has refused to make the Agreement into Israeli law, and has been claiming that it is non-binding, and is unenforceable in the Israeli courts. Even recently, in another case - before Israel's Supreme Court - the Government has taken the position that it is not bound by Israel's treaty obligations under the Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See.

Diplomatic assistance may possibly be offered by France, under its own previous agreements with Israel concerning Catholic institutions under the protection of France. However, the best hopes are for support from Catholic public opinion.

Losing the "Hospice" would be losing a very significant part of the Catholic presence and witness in Jerusalem.

This would be a "moral" loss, in addition to the "physical loss".

The charitable mission of the "Daughters of Charity" has an important part in witnessing, precisely in Israel, to the core affirmation of the Christian faith, namely that, "Deus caritas est", as the Holy Father has reminded the Church and the world in his first Encyclical, that "God is Love".

Evidently political and business interests sometimes have other ideas...

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