In a move toward ending nearly two millennia of strained relations between Jews and Catholics, a bilateral commission on Israeli-Vatican relations has formally ratified an agreement under which the Holy See and Israel will establish full diplomatic relations.
Following the ratification, which took place Wednesday at the Vatican, all that remained was a final signing ceremony the following day in Jerusalem.
The establishment of relations is the most important part of the wide-ranging agreement, said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls.
But he said the fact that the agreement covers other areas, including anti-Semitism and human rights, makes it all the more important.
“It is very rich,” he said. “It underlines the personality, and particularly the moral personality, of the Holy See.”
The agreement, which is the product of more than a year of negotiations by the bilateral commission, represents the culmination of steadily warming relations between the Vatican and Israel over the past three decades.
A major turning point in their relations came in 1965, when the Second Vatican Council promulgated the document “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time), which repudiated the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus.
But Catholic-Jewish relations have also had their sour points at various points over the years.
In May 1948, the Vatican reacted coolly to the establishment of the Jewish state. The Vatican newspaper wrote at the time, “Zionism is not the embodiment of Israel as it is described in the Bible.”
In June 1987, Pope John Paul II angered world Jewry when he granted a private audience to Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who had served in a German army unit linked to Nazi war crimes.
Relations between the Vatican and Israel hit another low point over the presence of a Carmelite convent that had been erected on the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
‘CLIMATE OF SINCERE COOPERATION’
Under this week’s agreement, Israel and the Vatican will exchange “special representatives” immediately and ambassadors within four months.
The Roman Catholic Church has promised to oppose anti-Semitism throughout the world and to support the current Middle East peace process.
Israel, in turn, has agreed to respect the religious rights of all Catholics and to allow the church to operate schools, run charities and own property in Israel.
Israel has also agreed to continue to guarantee freedom of Catholic worship and to protect Catholic holy places within Israel.
Both parties have agreed to promote Christian pilgrimages to Israel in the hope that they will foster improved interreligious understanding.
A joint statement released following the commission’s meeting Wednesday expressed “appreciation both for the climate of sincere cooperation and mutual trust that characterized and facilitated the talks, and for the notable results.”
It said the bilateral commission “is looking forward to the continuation of its work following the signature of the Fundamental Agreement with a view to its implementation.”
In a related development. Pope John Paul II held a private audience Wednesday with Rabbi Henry Sobel of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who is director of the interreligious relations department of the Latin American Jewish Congress and religious leader of the largest Jewish congregation in Latin America.
He is also Jewish coordinator for the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops’ Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue. It was in this last capacity that he handed the pope a personal letter from Cardinal Evaristo Arns, archbishop of Sao Paulo.
Sobel said Arns’ letter congratulated the pope on the agreement with Israel and defined the normalization of relations with Israel as “the crowning achievement” of John Paul’s papacy.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.