The Vatican and Israel

On October 15, 2013 the Vatican took a decisive, unambiguous action against Nazi Germany. It refused to grant Erich Priebke, an SS Nazi war criminal, a church funeral in Rome where he had died aged 100. In a sense it was compensating for the fact that Roman Catholic clerics after World War II helped him avoid prosecution and to escape, after a short stay in Vatican City, to Argentina where he lived for 50 years. Priebke was always unrepentant about his part in the massacre of 335 Italian civilians, including 75 Italian Jews, in the Ardeatine Caves in Rome on March 24, 1944. He was not simply a Holocaust denier but also, in a final interview in July 2013, made a repulsive contribution to history. He argued that the film of the death camps in Bergen-Belsen directed by Alfred Hitchcock was made specifically for propaganda purposes. Priebke, the brutal Nazi, complained that "the cynicism and total absence of human feeling in the movie are indeed horrifying."

The relationship between the Vatican and the representatives of other faiths is a complex one but sometimes there are lighter moments that reveal moves towards greater collaboration. A more delightful, unexpected, and rather enchanting announcement was made by the Vatican in October 2013 that it was forming its own cricket team, to be called St. Peter's Cricket Club, and that it would like to play a game with a Church of England team at Lord's in London next year. This would symbolize the boosting of interfaith Christian dialogue.

A more serious and even more symbolic demonstration of interfaith collaboration is the negotiation also in October for a tentative agreement between the Vatican and the State of Israel on some difficult issues, along with consideration of the complex mixture of religious, political, and material factors involved in the relationship between the two states.

It is no secret that since the creation of Israel harmonious relations and signs of reconciliation between the Vatican and the Jewish State took some time to develop. Full diplomatic relations were not agreed upon until June 15, 1994. Since the first agreement with Israel on property questions in 1993, the remaining thorny issues of property rights and tax exemptions for the Catholic Church in Israel have been unresolved in spite of years of negotiations. According to the tentative arrangement reached in 2013, among other things, the properties owned by the Church in Israel will be exempt from property tax.

The high level negotiations in Rome during 2013 have concentrated on a land deal mainly relating to a Vatican desire to build two centers in Israel. The first real estate issue concerns the building of a new church (one that the Catholic Church has wanted for some time) in the Caesaria National Park. This, an area where a church dedicated to St. Paul once stood, is now an archaeological and tourist area. Israel is prepared to approve the construction of a church provided it does not display religious symbols on the exterior.

The second issue concerns some land on Mount Zion in Jerusalem owned by the Vatican. The Holy See wants to build a church on that property which is currently used as a parking lot. Israel has not agreed to this proposal but has offered an alternative piece of land on which a church can be built. Israel has also decided to allow an area on Mount Zion, known as the Cenacle, the highest point on the Mount, where the Last Supper supposedly took place, to become open to Catholic worshippers, a decision which the Vatican has long requested. The site, presently a tourist attraction, will be administered by the Franciscans, who hold that they were guardians of this site before the Ottoman Empire took it over in the 16th century. Under this agreement Israel will retain ownership of the land.

This area, the Cenacle, has been controversial for two reasons. Christians venerate it as the site of the Last Supper, Jews see it as a holy site because it rests above what some believe to be King David's Tomb, and Muslims also consider it to be David's burial site. Secondly, the territory of Mount Zion is disputed territory. It lies in East Jerusalem which Palestinians consider an occupied site. The Palestinians hold that it should be subject to international, not Israeli law. For the Vatican, and also for Jordan, there is a dilemma. If a future agreement with Israel recognizes Catholic institutions in East Jerusalem, this agreement is tantamount to the Vatican giving de facto recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the area. Jordan is involved because it regards itself as the guardian of the holy sites in Jerusalem. It is not prepared to accept a Vatican-Israeli agreement concerning those sites. Therefore, both the Palestinians and Jordan want the Vatican to consider East Jerusalem as "occupied territory" until there is a final status agreement on the city.

Unquestionably, relations between the Holy See and Israel have been steadily improving. There are differences but not storms or obstacles that prevent some accommodation. Clearly there are still strong differences of opinion over the actions, and non-actions, of Pope Pius XII. If one side considers him a saint and a man who raised his voice in favor of Jews during World War II, others see him as more concerned with protecting the interests of the Church and its institutions and personnel, against both Nazi Germany and Soviet communism rather than with the fate of Jews. Those strong differences are particularly focused on the events of October 16, 1943 when the Nazis rounded up and imprisoned more than 1,000 Jews at a site close to the Vatican: most of the Jews rounded up during the incident were killed at Auschwitz. The behavior of the Pope, and his apparent silence, is still a matter of dispute. On the other hand, a number of Jews found safety within the Vatican. It is wise to suspend final judgment until the Vatican archives on wartime events are revealed.

More cordial actions towards the Jewish people in general and to Israel in particular on the part of the Vatican have take place since then. The first important step was in 1965 when the Vatican ended the longstanding accusation that the Jewish people as a whole was responsible for the killing of Jesus. A draft of Nostra Aetate was made in November, in the pontificate of John XXIII (958-1963) and was promulgated on October 28, 1965 under Pope Paul VI. It repudiated the charge of Jewish deicide, that Jews living now can be held guilty for the death of Jesus. It also decried all displays of anti-Semitism.

The Vatican has now accepted the existence of Israel. Pope John Paul II spoke of the "right of the people of the State of Israel to live in peace and security." In an address on April 10, 1997 to Aharon Lopez, Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican, he said, "The Holy See and the Catholic Church as a whole are deeply committed to cooperating with the State of Israel in combating all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism, and of religious intolerance."

More recently, Pope Benedict XVI in a nuanced and balanced speech in Rome on May 15, 2009 stated, "Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has a right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agree borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign, independent homeland, to live in dignity and to travel freely."

The Vatican has somewhat modified its position on Jerusalem. For many years the Vatican has sought the internationalization of Jerusalem and the Holy Places. It approved the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947 which called for two states and for a "corpus separatum" for Jerusalem and its environment, giving it an international character and international guarantees." It has altered this formula to agree to a "special statute, internationally guaranteed" for Jerusalem and the Holy Places. For its part Israel has recognized the juridical personality and authority of the canon law in the Catholic Church and its institutions.

There have been hints that Pope Francis may visit the Holy Land in 2014. So far Popes have made only three trips: Paul VI was in Jerusalem for half a day in 1964; John Paul II was there in 2000; and Benedict XVI visited in 2009. It would be an important signal of the growing harmony between the Vatican and Israel if Pope Francis did make the journey.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.