Signing of Israeli-vatican Pact Opens a New Chapter in Catholic-jewish Ties

The signing of an accord between Israel and the Vatican this week opens a new chapter in the nearly 2,000-year-old history of Jewish-Catholic ties, a relationship that has often been characterized by mistrust and hostility.

The agreement, which for the first time establishes formal diplomatic relations between the two governments, cites the “unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.”

The agreement includes a mutual commitment to combat anti-Semitism, racism and religious intolerance, as well as a pledge by the State of Israel to continue to respect and protect Catholic sacred places.

One of the document’s 15 points expands on the Vatican’s position on anti-Semitism.

“The Holy See takes this occasion to reiterate its condemnation of hatred, persecution and all other manifestations of anti-Semitism directed against the Jewish people and individual Jews anywhere, anytime and by anyone,” it states.

“In particular, the Holy See deplores attacks on Jews and desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, acts which offend the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” the document says.

At the signing ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin said, “Behind the agreement there are thousands of years of history full of hatred, of fear and ignorance, with a few islands of understanding, of cooperation and of dialogue.”

“Behind the agreement there are very few years of light and many more years of darkness,” said Beilin, who signed the agreement with Monsignor Claudio Celli, the Vatican’s undersecretary of state for foreign affairs.

‘CLIMATE HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY’

Jewish and Catholic leaders said the accord will have a profound impact on every aspect of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, from political to interreligious.

“The climate has changed dramatically already” as a result of the accord, said Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York and a leading behind-the-scenes voice who for years lobbied within the church for the Vatican to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel.

“Israel is a kind of concrete embodiment of the great spirit of Judaism and is the representation of Jews throughout the world, a people that has been persecuted and dispersed, sometimes by Catholics,” O’Connor said Thursday.

“This accord says that the church regrets any of this kind of thing (anti-Jewish attitudes) from the past and pleads that there be none such in the future,” he said at a news conference.

The Vatican now expects to play a more prominent role in the effort to create peace between the Jewish state and the Palestinians and on negotiations over the future of Jerusalem.

In the accord, the Holy See reserves to speak out as “a moral voice,” but agrees to remain “a stranger to all merely temporal conflicts,” specifically those related to “disputed territories and unsettled borders.”

In Jerusalem, Beilin said the Vatican had expressed interest in taking part in the five multilateral working groups of the Middle East peace process that are dealing with such regional issues as water resources, refugees, arms control, the environment and economic cooperation.

At a reception following the news conference at O’Connor’s residence, Israel’s consul general in New York, Colette Avital, said she believed that the Vatican would be invited to send an observer to those multilateral talks.

Israel is also looking to the Vatican to “help promote peace among Christian Palestinians,” she said.

“This constitutes a formalization of the moral presence of the church in Israel,” said O’Connor. “Its very presence will affect the peace process because many Palestinians are Christians.”

STATUS OF JERUSALEM UNRESOLVED

According to Monsignor Celli, not yet resolved is the status of Jerusalem.

We need “an international warranty in order to protect, to save, to recognize (the uniqueness) of the city for the three monotheistic religions,” he said Thursday.

Also remaining unresolved is the location of the Vatican’s Embassy in Israel.

The Vatican expects to establish it in Tel Aviv, possibly in Jaffa, a municipality outside Tel Aviv that is home to a large Arab population.

The accord was signed in Jerusalem with little fanfare, and the simple ceremony there concluded with the lifting of glasses of champagne.

A toast to Israel and the Vatican was also offered in New York by O’Connor at a small reception attended by representatives of Jewish and Catholic groups that had long been working with him on the issue.

O’Connor raised his glass to the future relationship between the two faith communities as he stood before a portrait of John Paul II and a gilded, red-velvet throne reserved for the pope in case he should visit.

Similar ceremonies involving Israeli officials and local Jewish and Catholic leaders took place in Washington and a handful of other cities around the United States.

The Synagogue Council of America, an umbrella group representing the three largest denominations of Judaism, issued a joint statement hailing the agreement with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“While we recognize that the accord which has just been signed is simply a preliminary agreement and many complex problems need yet to be resolved, we are convinced that it will bring rich rewards,” the statement said.

“It demonstrates that dialogue and an attempt to achieve mutual understanding and regard may be translated into political action and reality and lay the ground work for a more peaceful world.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Cynthia Mann in Jerusalem.)

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