Vatican ‘reaching Out’ to Israel, Influential Catholic Prelate Says

The Vatican is increasingly interested in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and is looking for signs of interest from the Jewish state, according to New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor.

The Catholic prelate, who has become one of the Vatican’s leading figures on Israel, told a group of Jewish leaders this week that there has been “a significant change in Rome.”

Over the past year, he said, he has sensed “a reaching out” from the Holy See to Israel.

“It seemed whereas for a long time Israel had been looking to the Vatican for signs that there was the possibility of diplomatic relations, I got the impression that now Rome was looking to Israel for signs, “O’Connor said.

While in Israel last December during a tour of the region, O’Connor met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, President Chaim Herzog and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

The Catholic leader said he was encouraged by the good will and sincerity expressed by the Israeli officials, and their responsiveness to the issues he raised with them.

O’Connor, who was in the region as head of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a relief agency, bookended the tour with stops at the Vatican. During both of those visits in Rome, he met with Pope John Paul II.

His meetings with Israeli officials were considered significant because they seemed to signal a shift from past Vatican policy, which was harsh on Israel and included calls for international control over Jerusalem.

On a 1987 visit to Israel, O’Connor was forced at the last minute to cancel appointments with the same Israeli officials because he had failed to obtain prior Vatican approval.

JERUSALEM ISSUE CLOSE TO RESOLUTION

At the March 31 meeting with Jewish leaders here, hosted by the World Jewish Congress and the International Jewish Committee on Inter-religious Consultations, O’Connor said Rome is no longer so interested in internationalizing control over Jerusalem.

Now, he said, the Vatican is concerned primarily with having the Palestinian question resolved, ensuring free access to Jerusalem’s holy sites, and guaranteeing protection of Christians in the Middle East.

“The question of Jerusalem seems to me to be much closer to resolution than ever in the past,” O’Connor said.

He added that “resolution of the Palestinian problem is not the responsibility of Israel alone.

“We move toward a resolution when we emphasize that the responsibility for Palestinians must be shared by a variety of countries,” he said in his remarks.

The Vatican’s lack of full and formal diplomatic relations with Israel has long been a priority for Jewish participants in Jewish-Catholic interreligious dialogue.

Though there is a Vatican delegate in Jerusalem, he has responsibility for Jordan as well, and does not have ambassadorial status.

The Vatican is the only remaining government in Europe without formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

Still, Israel and the Vatican have had informal relations for many years. Israeli politicians, including Prime Ministers Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, have visited the Vatican since 1969, according to Rabbi Leon Klenicki, a member of IJCIC and director of interreligious affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.

O’Connor has for many years advocated that the Vatican bridge the diplomatic gap with Israel.

He is considered an important ally because he has the ear of the pope on the matter and because he has an extensive network of friendships with Jewish leaders.

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