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5/2/2009 4:16 PM
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Holy See-Israel:
Progress but no agreement
before Pope’s visit

by Arieh Cohen

Tel Aviv, May 1 (AsiaNews) – The Holy See and the State of Israel have made significant progress but the long-awaited economic and tax agreement between the Catholic Church and Israel will not be signed before the visit of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land.

The Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel met yesterday in plenary session at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The delegations were headed, respectively, by Mgr Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's under-secretary for Relations with States, and Mr. Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister of the Government of Israel.

After a half day of talks the two delegations released a joint communiqué in which they noted that “significant progress” had been made by working-level negotiators in the months since the previous plenary in December of last year, and announced that the next plenary is scheduled to take place on 10 December this year, at the Vatican.

Some in the media had been expecting the Bilateral Commission to complete its work on the ‘Economic Agreement’ in time for the Holy Father's pilgrimage to the Holy Land (8-15 May), although experts had been warning that that was not a realistic expectation.

The announcement of the next plenary for December means that negotiations are expected to last at least until then. At the same time the delegations repeated their commitment to accelerate the negotiations in order to reach agreement as soon as possible.

The delegations on the Commission are negotiating a treaty that would
- Recognise the Church's historic tax exemptions in the Holy Land (roughly equivalent to those in the United States and other Western countries),
- Establish rules for the protection of Church property, especially the Holy places, and
- Obtain the return to the Church of some lost properties, particularly sacred places, such as the church-shrine in Caesarea that was expropriated and razed to the ground in the 1950's.

These negotiations began on 11 March 1999.

One would think that in 11 years of twice-yearly meetings, something should have moced by now. For instance, rules for the protection of Church property should not be a matter of dispute.

The two other main poibnts on the agenda - Church tax exemptions and return of confiscated Church property - both involve financial considerations.

The state of Israel claims the Church owes tens of millions in back taxes, which religious institutions are exempt from, as a rule, in all democratic states; and presumably, the return of 'lost' property would involve restitution as well for whatever buildings (including centuries-old historic ones) may have been demolished by the Israelis as they put Church property to their own secular uses.

One particular issue that might have been the concession par excellence to start off the Holy Father's pilgrimage is that of control over the Cenacle - the room where the Last Supper was held - which is located in a building Jews believe was built over the tomb of King David and is, of course, one of the most important Jewish shrines (even if this location, according to tradition, does not gibe with the Hebrew Bible's account that indicates David was buried in Ophel (a place in Jerusalem known as 'the city of David') along with other Judean kings.

I haven't had time to research this except for the bare facts but if the Cenacle was located over the site of David's tomb, surely that was a fact significant enough to be mentioned in the Gospels!

The Vatican Press Offfice released this communique yesterday about the Thursday meeting:


The Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel has held a Plenary meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel today, Thursday 30 April 2009, for the purpose of advancing the negotiations pursuant to Article 10 § 2 of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel (30 December 1993).

The Delegation of the Holy See was led by Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Under-Secretary for Relations with States at the Secretariat of State, and was composed, in addition, of the following Members:

- H.E. Archbishop Antonio Franco, Apostolic Nuncio in Israel, Chairman of the Commission at the "Working Level";
- H.E. Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Patriarchal Vicar;
- Msgr. Krzysztof Nitkiewicz, Under-Secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches;
- Msgr. Franco Coppola, Official of the Secretariat of State;
- Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, OFM, Legal Adviser;
- Fr. Jacek Dobromir Jasztal, OFM;
- Mr. Henry Amoroso, Legal Adviser;
- Father Giovanni Caputa, SDB, Secretary.

The Delegation of the State of Israel was led by Mr. Daniel Ayalon, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and was composed, in addition, of the following Members:

- Mr. Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, Head of World Jewish Affairs and Inter-Rreligious Affairs Department, MFA;
- Mr. Oded Brook, Head of the International Affairs Division of the Ministry of Finance;
- Mr. Bahij Mansour, Director of Inter-religious Affairs Department, MFA;
- Mr. Ronen Gil-Or, Adv., Director of General Law Department, MFA;
- Mr. Moshe Golan, State Attorney’s Office;
- Mr. Yael Weiner, Ministry of Justice;
- Mr. David Segal, Head of Deputy Foreign Minister’s Bureau;
- Ms. Idit Duvdevany, Legal Division, MFA.

The Plenary meeting of the Commission took place in an atmosphere of great friendship and a spirit of cooperation and good will.

The Plenary noted that the Working Level Commission achieved significant progress, on the eve of the upcoming important visit of the Pope in Jerusalem.

It was agreed to hold the next Plenary meeting on 10 December 2009, at the Vatican. In the meantime, the working-level Commission will hold meetings in furtherance of both Delegations’ pledge to accelerate the talks and conclude the Agreement at the earliest opportunity.


The Cenacle today is unmistakably Gothic, having been built by the Crusaders in the 13th century as part of a church, St. Mary of Zion, over what was believed to have been the historic site on Mt. Zion.

It is located on the second floor of a fairly nondescript stone building which is a 16th century reconstruction by the Franciscans, only to yield it to the Ottomans not long after, so that Muslims had control until after the Second World War. During that time the Cenacle was used as a mosque.

The site now known as David's Tomb (right photo)) is on the ground floor and except for the velvet covering draped over it with the appropriate Hebrew symbols, is otherwise found inside a stark and unadorned stone chamber.

The day I visited was a rainy day and visitors had to walk through a partly flooded hallway over an improvised ramp to get to the chamber with the tomb. There were no guards and no other personnel around except for the man at the entrance, and no need for a ticket or an admission fee, as I recall.

On the second floor, one had to go through a sort of walkway connecting to another wing of the building to get to the Cenacle itself, which has no markers and is completely empty. I suppose this is a result of the fact that Christians have no say over the space, the entire building being a property of a Jewish organizstion. (I understand the Cenacle has its own entrance now, through which visitors can go up to it directly, and then go down directly to David's Tomb.)

Tradition has conflated the Cenacle into both the room of the Last Supper, as well as the room where the Holy Spirit came to Mary and the Apostles on the first Pentecost.

[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/3/2009 11:11 PM]
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