Vatican-Israeli commission reports progress on economic agreement

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican and Israel have reported significant progress in negotiations on an economic agreement on church fiscal and property issues.

At the same time, sources ruled out the possibility that an agreement could be reached before Pope Benedict XVI makes his Holy Land pilgrimage in mid-May.

The Vatican and Israeli members of a bilateral working commission met April 23 in Jerusalem and reported in a joint communiqué, that “meaningful progress was achieved after receiving a report from a working group.”

The commission then held a larger plenary meeting April 30 and said in a statement that members had made “significant progress on the eve of the upcoming, important visit of the pope in Jerusalem.”

Vatican sources said that although there was room for optimism in the talks, there was technically no way to finalize an accord before the pope makes his May 8-15 pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

And, in fact, the statement from the April 30 meeting said another plenary meeting would be held in December.

In response to the desire of both the Vatican and Israel “to accelerate the talks and conclude the agreement at the earliest opportunity,” it said, the smaller working group would be meeting over the next seven months.

The announcement of the papal visit late last year put “wind in the sails” of the negotiations, said one source, but the issues have proven too complicated to rush an agreement in time for the pope’s arrival in Jerusalem. That was never the aim of the papal visit anyway, the source said.

Both sides have avoided any comment on the substance of the talks, which began in 1999. But knowledgeable church sources said that the issues discussed in the negotiations included:

– Protection of church properties, especially holy places, from government appropriation.

– Restitution of some properties that have been confiscated, including the site of the shrine church in Caesarea, which was expropriated and razed in the 1950s.

– Consolidation and confirmation of historic tax exemptions that have existed for church institutions in the Holy Land. The sources emphasize that the church needs these exemptions in order to survive, and that they are comparable to tax breaks offered religious entities in the United States.

– Access to the Israeli court system for church institutions whenever property disputes arise.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.