Pope’s Meeting with Chief Rabbi Seen As a Step Toward Relations

A meeting this week between Pope John Paul II and Israeli Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau is being seen as a historic and highly significant encounter that augurs well for closer relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state.

The half-hour session, which took place Tuesday at the pope’s summer residence at Castelgandolfo, south of Rome, was the first ever between a pope and a chief rabbi of Israel.

The pontiff greeted Lau with the word “Shalom” and said he wants to visit Israel soon.

After the meeting, Lau and a Vatican spokesman stresed that only spiritual, rather than political, issues had been discussed. Lau invited the pope to visit Jerusalem, following up on a similar invitation that had been extended to the pontiff by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres during a visit to the Vatican nearly a year ago.

Without naming a date, the pope told Lau the moment for such a visit “is growing near.”

The full-bearded, bespectacled Lau, wearing a black hat and knee-length coat, was accompanied to Castelgandolfo by his wife, Israeli Ambassador Avi Pazner and other officials. He presented the pope with a shofar.

The two religious leaders spoke to each other in English, although both were born in Poland.

Lau’s visit to Italy and his meeting with the pope were arranged long before this month’s breakthrough agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But the suddenly accelerated Middle East peace process has given added significance to encounters between Israel and the Vatican.

LAST PAPAL VISIT WAS IN 1964

Last week, Israeli and Vatican negotiators reached an agreement that could soon lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

Sources close to the talks said a special Vatican-Israeli commission that had been meeting since July 1992 agreed on a 14-point agenda for the normalization of relations.

An announcement on the establishment of full diplomatic relations is expected within weeks.

The Vatican has resisted establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel since the state was founded in 1948.

Pope Paul VI visited Jerusalem in 1964, but the Vatican’s formal recognition of Israel has always been sidelined by a number of issues, including Israeli recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people.

But that major political hurdle was apparently cleared last week with the signing of the Israeli-PLO accord.

Another issue of concern to the Vatican has been the status of Jerusalem, which the Holy See would like to see put under international jurisdiction.

Lau told reporters prior to his meeting with the pope that Israel would never give up Jerusalem or agree to its being put under international jurisdiction.

The pope has met a number of times with Jewish groups and prominent Jewish leaders.

His most significant meeting was in 1986, when he traveled to Rome’s main synagogue and met with Rome Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff.

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