03/09/2004, 00.00
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Israel – Holy See: no apparent fruit after 10 years of diplomatic relations

Fr. David Jaeger, expert in Israel-Holy See agreements, says 10 years ago the Church took a courageous step in initiating diplomatic relations with Israel. Now Israel must show the same courage in returning to the bargaining table.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary since the "Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel" went into effect.

Thanks to this agreement, the Holy See has accepted Israel's request to conduct diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Yet such relations are only the first step in a series of agreements which would have guaranteed the Church's freedom and rights in Israeli territory. However 10 years after the historic accord was struck the Church in Israel is disappointed, disconcerted and worried.

In effect Israel has never transformed the Fundamental Agreement into law and hence Israeli judges state they cannot recognize it in a court of law. Likewise the only other agreement reached so far was (on the state recognition of legal status of ecclesiastical authorities in 1997), was not passed into state law.  

However the most serous matter occurred on Aug. 28 2003, when the entire Israeli diplomatic delegation withdrew from all negotiations with the Holy See, while talks were underway to reach an extremely important agreement on safeguarding Church property and its tax exemption status. The pact was scheduled to be concluded by the 10th anniversary of the Fundamental Agreement.

Last July Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, heralded the signing of the accord "within 3 months". Yet since then Israel has refused to return to the bargaining table with the Vatican, despite its explicit commitment as part of  the Fundamental Agreement established 10 years earlier. 

Meanwhile, while lacking laws regulating its relations with the State of Israel, the Church finds itself if ever greater difficulty. With such stumbling blocks in their way, such as the absence of traditional exemptions from state taxes, Catholic organizations and institutions (e.g. St. Joseph's Hospital in Jerusalem, among others) find themselves being dragged to court. Moreover, without such agreements in order, Church personnel are denied entry visas and stay permits for Israel.  

Anxiety about the future has gotten worse due to the absolute silence the Israeli government has kept over its reasons for cutting diplomatic relations with the Holy See. And this is evidenced in various daily problems, like when Israeli troops invaded Jerusalem convents in order to built parts of the "Wall of Separation"  (or "security barrier", as the government prefers to call it). 

AsiaNews asked the opinion of Fr. David-Maria A. Jaeger, Franciscan priest and one of the greatest legal expert in Holy See-Israeli agreements:

"The State must understanding that it has an absolute legal obligation to return to the bargaining table. Its commitment to do so is part of a solemn international agreement signed and ratified by the State of Israel –otherwise Israel would be defined as defaulting (on the original pact). As for the rest, the rules governing Church-State relations interest the State just as much as they do the Church. If the State wants the rules respected, it must not act like a defaulter. Israel cannot continue cutting itself off from negotiations for too much longer. The Catholic Church made an historic and courageous step, and with great foresight, in accepting to normalize its official relationship with the State of Israel. In return the Church's legal status in Israel was promised to be normalized as well. I don't think our interlocutors want to make this historical enterprise fail. The negotiations themselves were undertaken in an atmosphere of reciprocal trust and good will. And if the (Israeli) government accepts taking up talks again I foresee both parties obtaining good results."

Fr. Jaeger says the reasons behind the stall in diplomatic relations are "unexplainable". He stresses that Diaspora Jews have asked the government to reconsider its move and to take up talks again. "For me the 10th anniversary since the Fundamental Agreement went into effect brings back memories of great hope and urges us to continue having it," Fr. Jaeger concluded. "Yet certainly this anniversary cannot be filled with a festive spirit." 
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