JERUSALEM – Israeli and Vatican officials denied reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres had asked the government to relinquish sovereignty over several holy places as a gesture of good will for Pope Benedict XVI.
Reports abounded in the Israeli press in early May claiming internal discord between Peres and officials from the Tourism and Interior ministries after the president allegedly had urged them to yield key Christian holy sites to the Vatican.
“What was published was taken out of context,” a spokeswoman for the president’s office said May 6. “The Israeli media published it as if the president was asking to give up sovereignty over holy sites, and there is a great distance between that and the reality.”
The spokeswoman said Israel already has pledged to the Vatican that it will not confiscate land around six Christian sites for any sort of national development purpose such as the widening of roads. She said Peres had asked the ministries, as a gesture of good will before the pope’s May 8-15 trip to the Holy Land, to confirm the pledge and to speed up the negotiations.
The holy sites mentioned include the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth; Gethsemane in Jerusalem; Capernaum, which served as Jesus’ home base during his Galilean ministry; Tabgha, where Jesus called several of his apostles to follow him; Mount Tabor, believed to be the site of the Transfiguration; and the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper and the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.
Archbishop Antonio Franco, papal nuncio to Israel, said the reports were a “big mess, a confusion of things.”
“I don’t know where they got their confusion but I regret the wrong message was given,” Archbishop Franco said in answer to a question about the report at a May 5 press conference about Pope Benedict’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories following his three-day visit to Jordan. “Honestly, we are working in good faith in trying to face different aspects of Catholic faith and Catholic life in Israel. We are still negotiating. To say this or that is simply the wrong message.”
Legal and fiscal issues remained unresolved following the signing of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Vatican, despite its stipulation that an agreement had to be reached on remaining matters within two years. Bilateral permanent working commissions have been meeting since 1999 to try to resolve the differences.