Spiritual needs and practical purposes
On the ground floor of a Crusader structure on Mount Zion in Jerusalem is an ancient gravestone known as David's Tomb. Few of the Jews who visit the site bother to go up to the top floor and visit the small room that is located there.
On the ground floor of a Crusader structure on Mount Zion in Jerusalem is an ancient gravestone known as David's Tomb. Few of the Jews who visit the site bother to go up to the top floor and visit the small room that is located there. The room is simple in appearance: a Muslim prayer niche, an inscription in Arabic and stained glass windows - nothing offers a clue that this is one of the holiest sites for the Christian world - the Room of the Last Supper, or Cenaculum (dining room) in Latin. Here Jesus and his disciples, according to tradition, ate their last Passover seder.
On desks in ministries here, a request from the Holy See has been lying around for quite some time. The Vatican would like to receive prayer rites at the site for monks of the Franciscan order. Under a special arrangement with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Franciscans are allowed to hold prayers there twice a year: at Easter and at Pentecost - the Christian Shavuot holiday, 50 days after Easter. The papacy is asking for ownership, or at least the exclusive right to use the site.
The request was first brought up in closed forums, more than four years ago. Until now, Israel has not formulated a position on the issue. This is a matter that requires decisions at the highest levels, say Foreign Ministry officials. But the likelihood that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or any of his ministers will find the time to give it the attention it deserves is apparently very small.
At the end of this month, the 10th anniversary of the signing of the basic agreement to establish the relations between Israel and the Vatican will be marked. The relations between the states have proved sturdy at times of crisis like the affair of the mosque in Nazareth and the siege on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. However, the Israeli expectations that the pope's visit in March, 2000, would take relations to a higher level were disappointed. The escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the cessation of the peace process are, in the opinion of many, the main obstacles to the bettering of relations.
In recent weeks, however, some commentators see a change in the thinking at the Vatican. Professor Vittorio Emanuele Parsi of the Catholic University of Milan told Haaretz this week that "there are signs of changes in the approach to the Muslims. There is increasing concern about the influence wielded by the fundamentalists, not only among the masses but also in the establishment and among the elites."
Concern about extremist Islam has appeared recently in public statements by cardinals and came up this week in a meeting between the pope and the heads of the Simon Weisenthal Center.
Professor Parsi, one of the most important commentators on the Vatican's foreign policy, thinks that this concern could lead the Holy See to show greater understanding of Israel's positions concerning the fight against terror. He believes that Israel can gain by getting closer to the Vatican, especially in diminishing the European tendency to side with the Palestinians.
In the Jewish organizations, there are those who share this assessment. "Until now, out of 45 countries in Europe, Israel has barely succeeded in enlisting one Berlusconi and one Fini," said the head of a Jewish organization that is active in Europe. "In light of its paltry achievements in the European arena, Israel must understand that the alliance with the Vatican is essential to it."
There are those who stress the importance of the Vatican as an ally in the struggle by the Jewish community in Europe against the rising wave of anti-Semitism. "Dialogue with the Catholics is not a luxury but a necessity," says the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Israel Singer.
"There is an urgent need to conduct a thorough evaluation of the situation in the ministries, the National Security Council and the local authorities on the question of Israel's relations with the Catholic world," says Israel's Ambassador to the Vatican, Oded Ben-Hur. At the political level, apparently, no one feels an urgent need to bring order to relations with the Catholic Church. The latest manifestation of this approach is the way Israel is procrastinating over a comprehensive agreement aimed at settling the Roman Catholic Church's standing with respect to matters such as property, taxation and access to courts in Israel.
At issue is an agreement that is in preparation by a bilateral committee headed by the director-general of the Foreign Ministry and the papal nuncio in Israel, which was established about a decade ago in the framework of the basic agreement. The negotiations over the agreement, which have been going on for more than four years, are being conducted by Father David Jaeger on behalf of the Holy See and the head of the religions department at the Foreign Ministry, Gadi Golan and the head of the international department at the Finance Ministry, Danny Catarivas, on behalf of the government of Israel. In their last meeting this summer, the members of the committee estimated that it would take them only two weeks of discussions to complete the preparation of the agreement.
On the basis of this assessment, the signing of the agreement was planned for this month, as a key event to mark the 10th anniversary of the signing of the basic agreement between the sides. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom even confirmed during a visit to the Vatican in July that the agreement would be signed "within three months." The final stage in the talks was set for the beginning of September, but on August 28, 72 hours before the Vatican delegation's scheduled arrival in Israel, the Foreign Ministry told it not to come. The final stage of talks and the signing were delayed indefinitely.
At the Vatican, they have been waiting for explanations ever since. "This is one of the most baffling cases in the history of Israeli diplomacy," Father Jaeger told Haaretz this week. "The government of Israel stopped the talks and I have no idea why this happened. There was no crisis in the talks; on the contrary. There was a very good atmosphere and most of the things had already been worked out."
For the Holy See this is a matter of an essential agreement. The Church's legal status in Israel today is made up of a mosaic of historical documents and later agreements, many of which are not suited to the reality. Thus, for example, an order from the Mandatory period dated 1924 is still in effect that determines that the courts in Israel do not have the authority to adjudicate any legal dispute concerning the holy places and religious sites in Israel.
"This order denies a basic right in every democratic society, the right to due process," say Vatican sources. In the absence of a court, the Foreign Ministry finds itself functioning as the messenger and mediator in any dispute between Catholic institutions and the authorities in Israel: property tax debts, the eviction of squatters from church properties and even changing the route of the separation fence so as to prevent damage to cloisters.
"These are matters that are a source of daily friction," says Jaeger, "and therefore the intention was to reach an agreement that would be a sort of `end to the conflict.' This is a matter that is fundamental to the diplomatic relations between the states. With all due respect to ceremonies, speeches and signatures, the agreement is the meat."
Even though both sides refuse to release details as to the contents of the emerging agreement, apparently many parts of it have already been worked out. Thus, for example, the issue of access to the courts has been dealt with and it has been agreed that Catholic welfare and health organizations will be entitled to more egalitarian government support.
However, some of the more complicated and sensitive issues remain unresolved. The matter of taxation raises weighty legal and budgetary problems. The Church demanded that the tax exemption that is granted to its institutions in past agreements be maintained. This covers an unknown number of churches, cloisters, empty lots, cemeteries, hostels, schools, hospitals, various businesses and residential apartments all around the country.
The Israeli side agreed that that a tax exemption should be given to places that serve for worship, such as churches, and other holy places like cemeteries. But the Israelis found it hard to understand why, for example, such an exemption should also be enjoyed by pilgrims' hostels that charge five-star hotel prices and residential apartments that are rented out on the free market.
The mayor of Jerusalem's adviser on the affairs of the Christian communities, Shmuel Eviatar, says that in Jerusalem the significance of this is the loss of property taxes on about one-fifth of the assets in the city. On the Israeli side they are mainly afraid of the precedent. If such a comprehensive exemption is given to the Catholics, what will stop other religious bodies in the Christian world, and even more so in the Jewish world, from demanding the same tax break?
The price of Catholic goodwill
The most sensitive issue is the Cenaculum. The Vatican's demand to have ownership or rights to the Cenaculum was brought up during the course of the deliberations of the subcommittee that deals with regularizing church property. The place was a Muslim trust before it was occupied by Israel in 1948 and handed over to the administration of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Holy See is basing its demand on history: The Franciscan monks held the room until the 16th century, when it was confiscated from them by the Ottomans. On the Israeli side, there are those that say that by the same logic the Vatican has to recognize the Jews' right to all of the Temple Mount.
"The Cenaculum is the main problem," an Israeli who took part in the talks acknowledged this week. "Even though it hasn't been officially discussed, it has been in the background the whole time, beneath the surface." Experts on the issue say that even though this is a matter of a change in an informal status quo, its implications are far-reaching. According to Dr. Shmuel Berkovich, a lawyer who specializes in the status of the holy places, acceding to this demand could upset the delicate balance among the various Christian communities concerning their rights in the holy places.
"A step like this could have dramatic significance," says Berkovich. "It is difficult to suppose that Israel will accept it." Yisrael Lippel, a former director-general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and an expert on Israel-Christian relations, says that a move like this could not only "endanger the peace with the other Christian communities, but could also anger Jews and Muslims, as whoever holds the Cenaculum becomes half-owner of David's Tomb, beneath which there is also a place that is holy to Muslims."
The official response from the Foreign Ministry is that last summer the negotiations reached a stage it which it was clear that ministerial intervention would be necessary to make progress in the talks and formulate a final agreement. The working levels at the relevant government ministries, the response noted, did the staff work that was intended to enable discussion at the most senior working levels (a discussion that is expected to make progress in the coming weeks).
"Father David Jaeger is dissimulating when he says that the Israeli side left the negotiating table with no explanation," according to the spokesman's office. "The historic attempt shows that states that have wanted to regularize the status of churches in their territory, with all the aspects of the issue, needed many years of discussions and talks."