On December 30, 1993, the Fundamental Agreement was signed by Msgr. Claudio Celli, Vatican assistant secretary of state and Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Yossi Beilin, paving the way to full diplomatic relations between the two parties in 1994:
The Fundamental Agreement extends the theological advances of Nostra Aetate into the political realm, creating for the first time formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. The Agreement signifies a historic step in the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish People.
The Fundamental Agreement addresses three spheres of relations: 1) political relations between Israel and the Holy See; 2) relations between the Jewish People and the Catholic Church; and 3) relations between the State of Israel and the Roman Catholic Church.
[Source: Milestones in Israel-Holy See Relations 1993-2005: Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate Consulate General of Israel in New York].
In 1997 the “Legal Personality” Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See was signed:
[regularizing] the status and legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church and its institutions under Israeli law, after approximately 500 years of undefined legal status under Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, and Israeli sovereignty.
This agreement marks the first de jure recognition of the Roman Catholic Church by any government in the Holy Land. It bestows upon the Roman Catholic Church the autonomy to run its internal affairs, subject to Israeli law in interaction with other bodies. The Legal Personality Agreement constitutes a continuation of the Fundamental Agreement of 1993.
In an exclusive article, The ten years of the Fundamental Agreement 30 Giorni [“30 Days”] No. 12, 2003, Israeli statesman Yossi Beilin describes the “behind the scenes” discussions which led to the signing:
These were open talks, launched at the Vatican’s initiative in the summer of 1991, even before the Madrid Conference. It was Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the apostolic delegate in Jerusalem, who announced the Vatican’s intention to initiate negotiations on an agreement with Israel, and he did so in consultation with Dr. David Jaegar, an Israeli Jew who had become a Franciscan priest, with boasted special knowledge in Canon Law.
The initial probes between Israel and the Vatican revealed the main dispute between them: Israel wanted to reach, first of all, an agreement on diplomatic relations between the two states, and only subsequently to discuss questions such as the freedom of religion, Church taxation, education, etc. The Vatican wanted to deal with all the practical matters, and to remove – at least at the first stage – the matter of the diplomatic relations from the agenda. . . .
Each party came to the table with its own priorities — for Israel, the objective was (understandably) “the common war on anti-Semitism and unequivocal recognition of the State of Israel.” For the Church, the concern lay with the rights of Catholics residing in the State of Israel:
. . . the guarantee of freedom of worship for Catholics, the legal status of priests, and the special approach of Pope John Paul II, who, as early as 1981, had sent to the President of the State of Israel a blessing for the New Year, and in 1986, had visited the synagogue in Rome – symbolic acts which stressed – alongside a long list of other acts – his special deep respect for Israel and its people.
John Paul II’s greetings to Israel in celebration of their new year appears to have sprung from a collaboration with his lifelong friend Jerzy Kluger, who played a subtle yet instrumental role (at the Pope’s request) in facilitating communication between Israel and the Vatican (How a Pope’s Boyhood Friend Helped Forge Ties to Israel):
When the Archbishop was named Pope in 1978, he stunned the world by granting his first papal audience, or formal reception, to Mr. Kluger and his family.
Three years later, the Pope was wounded in an assassination attempt. On Mr. Kluger’s third visit to the Pope in the hospital, the Pope suggested that with the Camp David accords pointing the way for peace in the Middle East, it was time for the Vatican to consider opening diplomatic channels to Israel.
“Are you willing to help?” Mr. Kluger says the Pope asked him. “We must proceed cautiously, officially and unofficially.”
Mr. Kluger played the role of broker and host, inviting Israeli and Vatican representatives to dine at his tennis club in Rome and playing bridge with key Cardinals. The steps were often small and symbolic. Once he relayed an Israeli diplomat’s suggestion that the Pope send a telegram with Jewish New Year greetings to the President of Israel. The Pope sent the telegram.
In 1994, at the ceremony welcoming the first Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Mr. Kluger stood for photographs next to the Pope, sandwiched between Israeli and Vatican dignitaries.
“I was a friend,” Mr. Kluger said. “And we had friendly conversations, and friendly relationships which one way or another helped these developments. That’s all.”
(Pope John Paul II and Jerzy Kluger’s friendship was made the subject of Darcy O’Brien’s The Hidden Pope: The Untold Story of a Lifelong Friendship (Roedale Books, 1998).
Related Commentary on The Fundamental Agreement
- In Israel-Vatican Relations Since the Signing of the Fundamental Agreement, Rabbi David Rosen discusses some of the conceptual conceptual hurdles that were tackled in the process of formalizing the Fundamental Agreement and Israeli-Catholic relations since its signing in 1993. [Microsoft Word – printable format]:
. . . as the Preamble of the Agreement indicates, the accord took place within the wider context of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation on which it undoubtedly had a profoundly positive impact in turn. Indeed, for many Jews especially in Israel, the diplomatic normalization served as testimony and proof of the genuineness of the transformation in theological attitudes and teaching that had taken place over the previous thirty years. The third relationship addressed by the majority of the articles in the Fundamental Agreement, concerns the relationship between the Catholic Church in Israel and the State.
While Israel’s goal was essentially the first of these3, the Holy See’s primary interest concerned the third. Indeed this difference reflects the divergent perceptions of the principle purpose of the bilateral relations.
Rosen’s article was published in the anthology The Vatican-Israel Accords: Political, Legal, and Theological Contexts, edited by Marshall J. Breger. University of Notre Dame Press (February 2004).
- Israel’s Relations with the Vatican by Aharon Lopez (former Israeli ambassador to Vatican). No. 401 13 Adar 5759 / 1 March 1999. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs:
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See is not to be considered as a point of arrival, but rather as a starting point. We are climbing up a mountain together and, from time to time, we reach important and substantial milestones towards the mountain’s peak.
In closing, let me share with you a very significant event which I cherish close to my heart. At the beginning of my mission as Ambassador to the Holy See, I received a fax from an Israeli Christian Arab who requested my help in asking the Pope to baptize his son. He and his wife were especially keen in seeing their wish fulfilled because, sadly, they had experienced the tragic loss of their first son.
Knowing that there are “only” 989 million Catholics all over the world, I feared we might have some difficulties in fulfilling such a request. Nevertheless, I contacted the proper authorities in the Vatican and emphasized that during the presentation of my credentials I had assured the Pope that I am representing all Israeli citizens–Moslems, Christians, and Jews alike–and therefore it was my duty to submit this request on behalf of a Christian citizen of Israel.
I was very pleased, a few weeks later, to receive a positive answer. Indeed, the Pope agreed to conduct the ceremony in his private chapel. I will never forget the smile on the face of the boy’s parents after their dream came true.
Israeli-Catholic relations since the 1993 signing have not always gone smoothly. Sandro Magister reported on two impediments to Israeli-Vatican relations and the subsequent implementation of the Vatican-Israel accords (with regards to financial issues and the status of Church property) in 2005:
The first skirmish came on July 12. That day, John Paul II was commemorated in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. And on that occasion, apostolic nuncio Pietro Sambi delivered a speech that was reprinted in its entirety by “L’Osservatore Romano” six days later.
In the speech, Sambi complained about Israel’s failure to take practical measures to implement the accords with the Holy See reached in 1993 and 1994:
“The Fundamental Agreement, which was ratified by the state of Israel on February 20, 1994, and is recognized internationally, has not yet been incorporated into Israeli law by the Knesset. The same must be said of the Legal Personality Agreement ratified by Israel on December 16, 1998, and recognized internationally on February 3, 1999. The so-called ‘Economic Agreement’, prescribed by article 10 of the Fundamental Agreement, has not yet been concluded.”
A meeting between the two parties to discuss the application of these agreements had been planned for July 26. But the meeting never took place, to the great disappointment of the Holy See and the Catholic community in the Holy Land.
On the day the ceremony was taking place in the Knesset, on July 12, Islamic terrorists carried out a serious attack in Netanya.
But at the Sunday Angelus on July 24, Benedict XVI did not mention Israel as being among the countries recently struck by terrorist attacks: Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Great Britain.
Exploiting this omission, the next day the Israeli foreign minister summoned the Vatican nuncio, Pietro Sambi, to communicate a note of protest […]
For further analysis on Pope Benedict’s 2005 omission of Israel from a list of recent victims of terrorism, I refer to John Allen Jr.’s “Context crucial in Vatican-Israel uproar” (National Catholic Reporter, August 12, 2005).
After some tit-for-tat jousting between diplomats, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moved to resolve any ill-feelings with the Vatican in a personal letter (“Israel, Vatican mend fences after dispute over pope’s terrorism comments”, by Arial David. World Wide Religious News August 27, 2005):
In his letter, Sharon said Benedict’s efforts to promote dialogue with Jews and Israel made him “a true friend of Israel, genuinely committed to advancing tolerance, understanding and reconciliation,” Ben Hur said in a phone interview, reading from the letter. He said Sharon then explained the reasons for his country’s reaction to the omission.
“Israel has been devastated and victimized by terrorism, and we are very sensitive to any attempt to distinguish between Islamic terrorism which systematically targets innocent Israeli civilians and that which is aimed at citizens of other countries,” Sharon wrote.
Sodano expressed his satisfaction with the letter during Tuesday’s meeting, saying both sides had made mistakes and that he was happy to put the issue behind him, Ben Hur said. The letter also invited Sodano to visit Israel.
In August 2006, Magister also featured an interview with Israeli ambassador Oded Ben Hur, in which he commmented further on Israel’s perception of Pope Benedict and Israel’s expectations of Rome:
In mid-July, just when the war had broken out in Lebanon, [Oded] was deeply troubled by the first statements from the Vatican authorities: “All of them went the same way, against Israel. The true aggressor, Hezbollah, wasn’t even mentioned by name. But after this the judgments became more balanced.”
Q: Did this happen when Benedict XVI began speaking out personally?
A: I would go so far as to say that Benedict XVI looks at Israel from a different point of view, compared to others. He sees the state of Israel not as an error of history, but as the heart of the Jewish world, a heart that by right should beat in Jerusalem. At the same time he is a realistic pope, who understands that the Church’s political influence is limited. He knows that the Church’s strength is not political, but moral. And it is there that he exerts himself most. It’s the pope as the great educator of the world, reawakening consciences, illuminating the darkness of ignorance, and pointing out where evil is triumphing over the good.
Q: The Middle East is one of the places where evil abounds the most.
A: And it may be that today the international community is taking greater notice of this. What happened in Lebanon was not the rupture of a situation of peace. Peace wasn’t there before this war. In that country there was a cancer named Hezbollah, a state within the state, which held the civil population hostage and fought a war while using this population as a shield. Even today, after the ceasefire, Hezbollah says it does not at all consider the war to be over, and is refusing to disarm. And Hamas continues to launch Kassam rockets against Israeli cities. […]
Q: What is expected from the Church of Rome?
A: A great deal. In Lebanon there is a strong Christian community that can act as a bridge for peace. The pilgrims to the holy places, when they come in great numbers, are also helpful to the local populations. I also have an idea that I have already proposed to the Vatican authorities: that of creating a task force with representatives from the three religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – who would travel throughout the various countries of the Middle East spreading a message of reconciliation, in order to sensitize and mobilize those who sincerely desire peace, and separate them from extremist and violent groups.
In December of 2006 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Pope Benedict XVI (Catholic News Service Dec. 14, 2006) – among the topics of discussion was the “dwindling Catholic population in the Holy Land, including in Bethlehem,” and peace in the Middle East:
Ben-Hur said Pope Benedict thanked the prime minister for Israeli’s declaration of a cease-fire with Palestinian militias, although Ben-Hur said the prime minister said it is getting more and more difficult “to withhold reactions” to missiles being launched into Israel from Gaza.
Ben-Hur said that when Olmert renewed a government invitation for the pope to visit Israel, the pope said he really wanted to make such a trip, but was looking for “a moment of calm.”
“The prime minister told him, ‘You can bring the calm,'” the ambassador said.
Talks between Israel and the Vatican resumed in 2007 with the goal of applying the provisions of the Fundamental Agreement‘s over the holy places, the Church‘s properties, and finances. In Holy See-Israel: painstaking resumption of negotiations (AsiaNews.it Bernardo Cervellera, December 12, 2006), Oded Ben Hur gave another interview on the nature of the impediments to negotations.
- Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the institution that cares for the property of the Catholic Church in Israel and the Territories.
- Catholic Friends of Israel, founded by Don Kenner. I came into contact with Mr. Kenner shortly after the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in July-August 2006 and have become an occasional contributor to their blog. To learn about the founder of CFOI, I recommend this interview with IsraPundit; see also “The Bishops and the Suicide Bomber” FrontPageMag January 28, 2004).
- Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, founded by Sr. Ruth Lautt, O.P., Esq., advocates among mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics in North America for fairness in the churches’ witness on issues related to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
- Milestones in Israel-Holy See Relations 1993-2005: Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate Consulate General of Israel in New York.
- Pave The Way Foundation “dedicated to achieving peace by bridging the gap in tolerance and understanding, between religions through cultural, technological and intellectual exchanges.” Gary Krupp, the founder, was promoted to the highest Pontifical Order of St. Gregory the Great — the first Jewish man to be knighted by two popes.
- On September 9, 2007, Shimon Peres, in his first foreign visit as president of Israel, met with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo and members of the Vatican curia, to discuss Catholic-Israeli relations and the situation in the Middle East. AsiaNews.it reports:
Rome (AsiaNews) – The Israeli President Shimon Peres is “quite optimistic” regarding negotiations between Israel and the Holy See and has declared that “within the years end the most important problems will be resolved”. Answering a question put forward by AsiaNews, during a press conference, he also said that he had invited Benedict XVI to visit Israel. …
On the long standing question of the implementation of the Fundamental Agreement, 13 years on from its signing, the Holy See statement urges “a rapid conclusion to the important ongoing negotiations and the beginning of a constant dialogue with Israeli Authorities and local Christian communities, in view of their participation in working for the common good”.
September 3 last –after a long summer pause – and after years of deadlock, negotiations between the Holy See and Israel recommenced. They aim to lead to an agreement regarding issues of taxation and Church properties, which have been waiting implementation since ’93.
The Vatican statement makes no reference whatsoever to a possible visit by Benedict XVI to Israel, even if the pope has already expressed a positive opinion in the past. Peres told journalists that he was “moved” by the pope’s reaction to his proposal and defined Benedict XVI as “great spiritual figure”, underlining that “the Spirit” incarnated in the religions can give an important impulse to peace and the elimination of violence, “assassins and killings”.