Vatican envoy: Ties with Israel in decline due to broken promises

Relations between Israel and the Vatican “were better” before the two established full diplomatic ties in 1993, according to a senior Vatican diplomat and former top Holy See envoy to Jerusalem.

Israel has also failed to keep promises to ease travel restrictions on Catholic clerics and remove taxes on Church-owned property in the Holy Land, Monsignor Pietro Sambi said in an interview posted Friday on the Franciscan Order’s Web site.

“The Holy See decided to establish diplomatic relations (in 1993) with Israel as an act of faith, leaving to latter the serious promises to regulate concrete aspects of the life of the Catholic community and the Church in Israel,” Sambi, the Papal Nuncio to the United States, said.

“If I must be frank, the relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomatic ties,” he continued.

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current sore point – the granting of permits for Arab Christian clergy traveling to and around the West Bank, which has rescinded because of security concerns.

Sambi complained that the Knesset 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.

He blamed the situation on Israel’s absence of political will. “Everyone can see what kind of trust you can give to Israel’s promises,” Sambi said.

Asked about Sambi’s criticisms, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said that “Israel is interested in good relations with the Vatican and Israeli and Vatican officials are working to overcome gaps that exist.”

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said the interview with Sambi reflects 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 President Shimon Peres, for a rapid conclusion of the important negotiations and a common solution to existing problems.

Earlier this year, tensions developed between the Vatican and Israel when the Holy See’s ambassador to Israel initially decided to boycott a Holocaust memorial service because of allegations that during World War II Pope Pius XII was silent about the mass killings of Jews.

While Israel has in the past offered to create a special panel to oversee property cases involving the Vatican, it has also expressed fear that giving tax exemptions to the Catholic Church could open the door for other churches and groups to seek similar treatment.