11/11/2005, 00.00
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Father Jaeger: give substance back to accord between Israel and Holy See

by Bernardo Cervellera

With Moshe Katzav soon to visit to the Vatican, an expert jurist -- a Catholic citizen of Israel -- tells of the difficulties and hopes pertaining to the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel.

Rome (AsiaNews) -- Relations between Israel and the Vatican have had their ups and downs over past months.  Everyone recalls the "omitted" reference to Israel as a victim of terrorism, but also the profound esteem shown by Benedict XVI towards Jewish figures in Cologne and how President Katzav himself distanced himself from the polemics on the "omitted" reference.  The occasional jolt cannot wipe out the historic step taken in 1993 with the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the state of Israel which allowed for diplomatic relations to begin between the two parties.  Yet, it is precisely this Agreement which is being disparaged by certain fringes of the Israeli world.  On November 17th, Israeli President Moshe Katzav will visit the Vatican.

To take stock of relations between Israel and the Holy See, AsiaNews interviewed Franciscan Father David M. Jaeger, who had been a member of the group that drafted the Fundamental Agreement.  In accepting to be interviewed, Fr Jaeger stresses that he is speaking in a purely personal capacity, "strictly as an academic expert, with some pratical experience in the field."

Here is the interview he granted to AsiaNews:

The President of Israel will arrive in the Vatican almost 12 years after the signing of the historic treaty that opened the way for full diplomatic relations between the Sovereign Authority of the Catholic Church and the State of Israel. Yet, as has been widely reported, there are still some difficulties in the relationship, which, hopes are, the President's visit will help to resolve. What are these difficulties and what needs to be done to resolve them?

First of all, it must always be remembered that the two Parties have established and maintain friendly relations. it is important to emphasise this. This is not adversarial relationship in any way. It is a friendly relationship, but a rules-based relationship. The negotiations and agreements are the ways to establish these rules, and to make the friendly relations secure. Having said that, I believe that the most important question at present is the status of the Fundamental Agreement itself. Last year the Government officially told Israel's Supreme Court that the Government does not recognise its obligations under the Fundamental Agreement. This was a shock, and obviously it is necessary for the Government to amend its statement to the Court. I believe that this is an urgent necessity, since the Fundamental Agreement is the whole foundation and framework of the entire relationship. I hope that it was simply a mistake, made by uninformed officials without the authorisation or the knowledge of the higher levels of Government, and I hope that the Government will prove this by amending its statement to the Court as a matter of some urgency.

I know the Government attributes great importance to its relations with the Catholic Church, which is why I hope it will reconfirm its ratification of the Fundamental Agreement and write it into the laws of the State. 

There is another very worrying development concerning the very value of the Fundamental Agreement: Recently it appears that some Government lawyers have been saying that the Agreement is not, in any case, binding on local authorities, as if they were foreign states, and not part of the State of Israel. This is obviously a mistake, but it needs to be corrected, otherwise the Agreement could be seriously undermined.

Are there any other issues pending?

There are. There is the need to bring to a successful conclusion the lengthy negotiations - begun in 1999  - with the purpose of obtaining a definitive recognition by the State of Israel of the rights and freedoms that the Church had acquired in the course of many centuries, and that were in existence when the State was born in 1948.

There are many different legal sources for these rights: Earlier treaties, traditions, custom, legislation, and they were confirmed and endorsed by the United Nations in authorising the establishment of the State of Israel. It was always understood that the Fundamental Agreement, and the establishment of diplomatic relations, meant that the time had come for these rights to be consolidated and officially recognised by the State. The negotiations on this were intended to produce a treaty by 1996, but they are still on-going. And, of course, the new agreement must also ensure that the Church enjoy fully the rights and freedoms that are normal in any modern democracy such as the State of Israel.

Can you give examples of these matters?

For example, the Church was always exempt from local property taxes (as churches and synagogues, monasteries and many, many other religious institutions are exempt in the United States, Israel's model and ally). Yet, in December 2002, shortly after Israel's own Supreme Court had twice confirmed this exemption,  the law was very suddenly changed in Israel to take away this full exemption from monasteries and convents and most other Church institutions. This was not the purpose of the law, only an accidental result of a very hastily drafted law, but it needs to be rectified, and the exemption must be restored. Otherwise many of those institutions might simply not be able to survive. 

Then there is the matter of restitution of some Church properties that have been confiscated. This is the case of the church that existed in Caesarea. Caesarea has a prominent place in the Acts of the Apostles and early Christian history. It was where the Gentiles first received the Holy Spirit. Yet the church there was confiscated in the 1950's and was later completely destroyed. There is also the case of the convent of Franciscan sisters in Jerusalem that is still obstinately occupied in part by the Hebrew University, a major national institution. The good sisters gave hospitality to the University in 1948 when the University itself was a war refugee from its original campus. Now the University has several large, spacious campuses, but it is still refusing to leave the little convent.

You were speaking also of the need to secure rights that are normal in a modern democratic state; is there any problem in this area?

There is one huge problem: In Israel, an old law means that the Government can take away jurisdiction from the Courts in legal disputes involving churches and religious buildings. These cases would then be decided, or not, by the Executive, at its sole discretion, without a trial. This is an intolerable situation. There was an example of what might happen, quite recently: In the 1990's, when private people tried to take over a Catholic cemetery, and the Government appointed a low level official to decide the dispute. His first decision was that he was not bound by the rules of evidence! This is obviously intolerable in a State like the State of Israel that is based on the rule of law. The Church must have the right to defend its religious properties in a court of law, like any other property owner. This matter too is waiting to be resolved by the on-going negotiations, in accordance also with the Fundamental Agreement that explicitly recognises the Church's right to property. This right may not be worth much if it cannot be defended in the courts.

In view of all of this, what do you expect from President Katzav's visit to the Vatican?

I am not involved with this in any way, I am a professor of canon law, not a politician or a diplomat. However, as a Catholic priest, and as an Israeli, who cares passionately about the relationship between his Church and his State, I personally hope that the visit will be an occasion for Israel to confirm that it does recognise the Fundamental Agreement as binding, and as binding on all authorities in the State, including the local authorities. That the Fundamental Agreement - and the subsequent treaty (of 1997) recognising the legal personality of the Church and her institutions - will soon be written into Israeli law. That the vitally necessary exemption from the heavy local property taxes will be restored and respected. That the church in Caesarea will be rebuilt. That the Convent of St. Anthony will finally be returned fully to the Franciscan Sisters. Most of all, that the present negotiations will be accelerated with a view to an early conclusion, in accordance with the Fundamental Agreement. Then I will know that the great hopes we had in 1993 were truly justified, and that the friendly relations that all of us, on both sides, worked so hard to achieve are finally secure.

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