Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Vatican-Israeli bilateral working commission report "meaningful progress" in talks over church property. Contested(?): Mount Zion and the Cenacle

I've been hearing various reports from Catholic News Agency to Zenit that there has been progress in negotiations between Israel and the Vatican over the matter of church property. Unfortunately, while both parties seem optimistic there hasn't been a whole lot of actual detail. An article from Catholic News Agency runs along the same ambiguous lines, yet provides some information on the actual points of discussion:
The Vatican and Israeli members of a bilateral working commission met April 23 in Jerusalem and reported in a joint communique that "meaningful progress was achieved after receiving a report from a working group."

The commission scheduled another meeting at the plenary level on April 30 and reaffirmed its "joint commitment to conclude the agreement as soon as possible."


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.
Israel National News -- an opinionated news site that definitely makes its own preferences known on the matter -- states that:
Among the most significant issue under negotiations is the Vatican’s demand for the Last Supper room, located on the second floor of the ancient Mt. Zion building that also houses the tombs of Kings David, Solomon, and Hezekiah.

In addition, the Vatican is claiming areas around Lake Kinneret, as well as in Caesaria and Jerusalem.

(Source: Israel’s Control of Mt. Zion in Danger, by Hillel Fendel. April 26, 2009).

According to INN, a Foreign Ministry official confirmed in 2005 that a “blueprint of a possible agreement with the Vatican has been received.”

According to the plan, Israel would hand over to the Holy See the use of the Cenacle (the room of the event known as the Last Supper, above King David's tomb), which would in turn be handed over to the Custody of the Holy Land, who will in turn use the room for the celebration of Holy Mass, with "official liturgical celebrations of non-Catholic Churches can take place only upon prior written permission by the Custody of the Holy Land."

If this report bodes true, one can understand how it would provoke consternation on the part of not only Jews but non-Catholic Christian communities as well.

However, a later report by Israel National News indicates that a Foreign Ministry official denies categorically that Israel plans to hand over any properties. The article by Hillel Fendal does provide an insight into the fierce politics and rivalries involving this heavily contested abode -- a snippet:

"We were forced to give over part of the compound to the Ministry of Religious Affairs," says Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, founder and Dean of the Yeshiva, "which then gave it over to the Ministry of the Interior. Ever since then, the Church has been making demands and claims on the area, and has been making inroads. Their goal, ultimately, is to conduct religious services here, with hundreds of thousands of Christian tourists coming through.

"This area is very contested, by many different churches," Rabbi Goldstein (pictured below at David's Tomb) told Israel National News. "Why should the Catholic Church claim be honored more than that of others? Given such a situation, it is clear that the best solution is the status quo: Everyone is permitted to enter, but no religious services are allowed."

Without a doubt, all parties anxiously await what the committee has to report on Thursday, April 30.

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