Rarely would anyone expect front-page news from something called The Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel.
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But right-wing “price tag” attacks and protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews have thrust this commission into the limelight. For 15 years it has been striving to negotiate a financial agreement between Israel and the Holy See over the Church’s property rights and tax obligations.
At the center of the dispute is a complex on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, whose first floor is believed by Jews to house the tomb of King David. Its second floor is held sacred by Christians as the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper.
In recent weeks, right-wing and religious media have published unconfirmed reports that the commission has achieved an accord and Israel has agreed to give the Vatican sovereignty over the contested Mount Zion building.
More about the pope's visit: The gospel according to Francis: Nir Hasson | A Jewish pope? Elon Gilad | Great expectations, great disappointment? Ariel David | What the pope won’t see in Bethlehem: Judy Maltz | Protecting the pontiff: Allison Kaplan Sommer | Too cozy with the church? Anna Momigliano | Israel and Vatican strive to resolve tensions: Ariel David | Jews 'have nothing to discuss' with Vatican: Anna Momigliano | Did the pope say that?!? An interactive quiz | A history of papal visits to the Holy Land: Elon Gilad.
The news was referenced by the vandals who in recent weeks have scrawled anti-Christian graffiti on a Jerusalem church, including the slogan “King David is for the Jews.”
Also, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered on Mount Zion to protest the supposed agreement and call on the pope to “stay in Rome.”
While Christian pilgrims can visit the Cenacle, prayer services are not allowed there. However, the pope is expected to celebrate mass at the site during his visit, a plan that further angered rabbis who oppose any non-Jewish activity there.
The spate of attacks and protests have added to the tension over Francis’ May 24-26 visit; both Jerusalem and the Vatican fear the trip may be marred by further hate crimes. Israel’s envoy to the Holy See strongly denied that any such deal was in the offing; he said no agreement had been finalized.
“The State of Israel has no intention to transfer to the Vatican sovereignty or ownership of the Cenacle or any other part of the compound on Mount Zion,” Ambassador Zion Evrony told Haaretz in an email.
Evrony said progress had been made in the talks, “but there is still some work to be done.” He added that an agreement would not be signed during the pope’s visit, but hoped the trip would bring new impetus to the negotiations, with a deal reached “in the near future.”
Israeli officials, pundits and journalists have repeatedly expressed optimism on the talks and declared an agreement imminent, only to see the negotiations drag on for years. Although the complaining by some rabbis and nationalists may be premature, an agreement would be important for both sides, Evrony said.
Since establishing diplomatic ties in 1994, Israel and the Vatican have been at odds over the ownership of several properties across the country, from the Cenacle to a plot in Caesarea that housed a small church razed by Israel shortly after the establishment of the state.
Recovering the properties or receiving some say in their management would give the Vatican assurances on freedom of worship for Christians at these sites. It would also reassert some of the influence over holy places that the Church has always claimed it deserves.
Also on the table are the limits of Israel’s expropriation rights, as well as taxes on the Church’s properties, for which the Vatican wants an exemption. This has always presented a dilemma for Israeli authorities, who fear that such an exemption would create a precedent for similar demands from other Christian denominations and religious groups.
On the other hand, closer links with the Vatican would bring more pilgrims to the Holy Land and improve ties with the world’s 1 billion Catholics, some of whom are members of Israel’s Arab minority.
Evrony, the Israeli envoy, said an agreement would also help Israel’s international standing. “We also expect it to improve relations with other Catholic countries for which the Vatican’s position regarding Israel is important,” he wrote.