VATICAN CITY – Israel postponed a major negotiating session with Vatican officials on questions regarding the church’s legal and financial status in the Holy Land.
The Vatican expressed disappointment at yet another delay in the on-again, off-again talks, which began 15 years ago.
The meeting of the joint commission on church-state issues had been scheduled for March 29 at the Vatican and would have been the first plenary session of the commission since 2002.
On March 26, Israel told the Vatican the meeting would have to be delayed because it coincided with important developments in the Middle East. The Israeli officials cited the March 28-29 Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip through the region.
Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Oded Ben-Hur, told Catholic News Service that the postponement was for technical reasons only, and that a new meeting would be arranged as soon as possible.
In a statement made public March 28, the Vatican said it understood the reasons for Israel’s decision, but expressed its regret at the delay and said the meeting should be rescheduled quickly.
An informed Vatican source said that if Israel delays in agreeing to a new date for the meeting the Vatican would view it as a more serious setback.
A letter giving a detailed explanation for the delay was sent to the Vatican by Aharon Abramovitch, director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was to have led the Israeli delegation.
One knowledgeable church source in Rome said the Israeli decision was especially discouraging, because it was part of a pattern of last-minute delays and cancellations over the years.
The plenary meeting was considered key to advancing the talks, which have stalled in working-group meetings in recent years, he said.
The source said that, in the church’s view, there were three main issues that need to be resolved:
– Access to juridical due process through the Israeli court system. At present, Israel’s position is that disputes concerning church property fall outside the jurisdiction of Israeli courts and are to be decided by the government. In the Vatican’s view, this goes against the fundamental principles of the rule of law.
– Arbitrary taxation policies against church institutions and properties. The church currently has de facto tax exemptions that predate the foundation of Israel, but they are not written into Israeli law. That means many church institutions are technically considered tax delinquent, and Israel can crack down on them if and when it chooses, the source said.
– Restitution of some church properties, especially holy places. The most discussed site has been the site of a church shrine in Caesarea, which was destroyed in the 1950s.
Last December, Pope Benedict XVI and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the protracted negotiations in a meeting at the Vatican. Olmert told the pope he had instructed the Israeli negotiators “to make every effort to finalize the agreements,” according to Israeli sources.
The December 1993 “Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel” established full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. It outlined principles of religious freedom and church-state relations, leaving the more difficult issues – such as the church’s tax status and property holdings – to the joint commission.