Vatican opens ties with Israel

December 31, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Israel and the Vatican signed yesterday an agreement to begin diplomatic relations, ending the 45-year refusal by the Roman Catholic Church to recognize the Jewish state.

The agreement was described by both sides as a political and religious milestone after 1,900 years of enmity between Christians and Jews.

Pope John Paul II is likely to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, possibly in 1994, once the diplomatic ties are in place.

"We thought the time was proper. We have new, positive developments that must be taken into consideration," said the Vatican's representative, Monsignor Claudio Celli, after signing the pact.

Chief among them is the prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the possibility that their negotiations might decide the future of Jerusalem.

Yesterday's signing ceremony -- in which the two states pledged to exchange ambassadors by April -- was set against a backdrop of historical grievances: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust.

"Behind the agreement there are thousands of years of history, full of hatred, fear and ignorance," said Yossi Beilin, Israel's deputy foreign minister. "Behind the agreement there are very few years of light and too many years of darkness."

Until 1965, the Catholic Church held all Jews collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Jews, in their most modern complaint, cited the Vatican's silence during the Holocaust and resented what many here saw as hostility to modern Israel.

"Can we ignore the memories of so many years? No," said Mr. Beilin. "It is wrong to ignore memory, much as it is wrong to let memories tie our hands and determine our fate."

There are 1.8 billion Christians, making up the world's largest religion, of whom about half are Roman Catholic. Judaism, one of the smaller world religions, has about 17 million members, about 4 million in Israel.

The establishment of diplomatic ties has less to do with theology than with practical politics, according to analysts here.

As more than 130 countries have now officially recognized Israel, the Vatican's refusal to do so was becoming anachronistic. And the Vatican faced pressures, primarily from Catholics in the United States, to join in recognizing Israel, according to Sergio Minerbi, author of "The Vatican and Zionism."

Israel, likewise, has long pursued a goal of breaking out of its diplomatic isolation.

Vatican recognition was blocked from the start of modern Israel's creation by the Vatican's refusal to accept its claim to statehood and its adoption of Jerusalem as its capital. In recent years, the Vatican has said that the Israeli-Palestinian issue must be solved before diplomatic relations could be established.

Monsignor Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, said yesterday the accord signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization Sept. 13 takes a step toward satisfying that last requirement.

The ties with the Vatican come "inside the general process of reconciliation of the whole area," he said. "The church . . . was waiting for both [Israelis and Palestinians] to normalize the relations among themselves. Now they are starting."

Monsignor Celli said that the Vatican's embassy will be located in Tel Aviv, so as not to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The United States and other countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv for that reason.

He also repeated the Vatican's long-standing call for international protection for the holy sites in Jerusalem. That call has been flatly rejected by Israel, which claims sovereignty over all of the city.

'Process of reconciliation'

The agreement refers to a "historic process of reconciliation . . . between Catholics and Jews." In it, Israel promises to respect freedom of religion and the church promises to help combat anti-Semitism.

The two states will exchange diplomatic representatives whose status will be upgraded to that of ambassadors next year. The agreement guarantees the church the right to conduct charitable and educational work in Jerusalem. It sets up a committee to resolve disagreements over the tax status of the church's considerable properties in Israel.

"Problems are remaining. We are not blind," the monsignor said. "This agreement is not coming when all the problems have found a solution."

Palestinians are displeased with the accord, contending that the Vatican has abandoned its support of their claim for a homeland. There are about 120,000 Christian Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

To reassure Palestinians, the spokesman for the Vatican, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, told a news conference in Rome that Monsignor Celli would meet today with Palestinian representatives and that an agreement to recognize Jordan could be announced soon.

Geries Sa'ed Khoury, head of the Palestinian Al-Liqa Center for Religious Studies, warned yesterday that the agreement will weaken the Palestinian position in bargaining with Israel.

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