Ties with Israel worsening, Vatican diplomat admits

Days after a delegation of Austrian bishops were turned away from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Holy See diplomat Archbishop Pietro Sambi has admitted that ties between the Vatican and Israel were better before there were diplomatic relations.

"If I must be frank, the relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomatic ties," Archbishop Sambi is quoted as saying in an interview last week with online publication Terrasanta.net.

"The Holy See decided to establish diplomatic relations (in 1993) with Israel as an act of faith, leaving to later the serious promises to regulate concrete aspects of the life of the Catholic community and the Church" in Israel, Sambi told the paper, according to an International Herald Tribune report.

Blaming an "absence of political will", Sambi complained that the Knesset, Israel's legislature, has failed to give necessary approval to various accords that had been signed by both sides, and noted that an impasse over taxes has been discussed on and off for nearly 10 years without resolution.

"Everyone can see what kind of trust you can give to Israel's promises," Sambi said.

Among the issues hanging are the status of expropriated church property, services that Catholic groups perform for Israel's Jewish and Arab population, and tax exemptions for the Church.

The Vatican diplomat also cited a current sore point — the granting of permits for Arab Christian clergy traveling to and around the West Bank.

However, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi appeared to distance the Holy See from Sambi's views saying they reflected "his thinking and his personal experience" during the diplomat's former posting in Israel.

Lombardi said the Holy See reiterated the hope, expressed in September when Benedict met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, for a "rapid conclusion of the important negotiations" and a common solution to "existing problems."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said: "Israel is interested in good relations with the Vatican and Israeli and Vatican officials are working to overcome gaps that exist."

No crosses at Wailing Wall

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post has reported that a group of Austrian Catholic bishops who refused to hide their Christian crosses were refused entry to the courtyard of the Western Wall, the Jewish people's holiest prayer site.

Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch refused to give the bishops access to the site and avoided meeting the ecclesiastic delegation of approximately 20, led by Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schonborn.

Rabinovitch denied that the incident, which took place Thursday, smacked of religious intolerance.

"Crosses are a symbol that hurts Jewish feelings," said Rabinovitch who refused to elaborate on precisely how or why the crosses were so offensive.

"I feel the same way about a Jew putting on a tallit and phylacteries and going into a Church. I would be the first to rebuke such a Jew for not behaving like a mensch." Rabinovitch added that he was surprised the Catholic clerics refused to hide their crosses.

"They did not have to take them off, just hide them. I've never encountered a Christian who has refused, including the Pope."

Members of the delegation have already returned to Austria and did not return e-mail requests by The Jerusalem Post for responses regarding the incident.

According to a directive issued by Rabinovitch, it is forbidden to openly wear the Latin cross, which represents what Christians believe to be the redemptive crucifying of Jesus, in the Western Wall courtyard.

However, the delegation of bishops did not know this, said Austrian Embassy cultural attaché Arad Benko.

Cardinal Schonborn later played down the incident.

"I do not feel disappointed because we have seen the Wall from the terrace and we were able to participate in the prayers of the Jews from afar. Our decision to heed the requests not to approach the Wall was made out of respect for the religious sensitivities of the Jews," he said.

Schonborn, who was a leading candidate to replace previous pope John Paul II, is considered a friend of Israel.

Senior Vatican diplomat says ties with Israel worsening (International Herald Tribune, 16/11/07)
Bishops barred from Western Wall (Jersulem Post, 12/11/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Archbishop Pietro Sambi (Catholic Hierarchy)
Holy See Secretariat of State
Temple Mount (Wikipedia)
Cardinal Christophe Schonborn (Wikipedia)

Melbourne Archbishop meets youngest chief Rabbi (CathNews, 14/11/07)
Israel apologises over cancelled Vatican meeting (CathNews, 30/3/07)

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