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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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A Historic Agreement

A “fundamental agreement” is drawn in an attempt to improve relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel.

In Jerusalem, on 30 December 1993, a “Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the state of Israel” was signed by Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, the Holy See’s under-secretary for relations with states, and his counterpart, Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs.

The 15-article agreement (see excerpts below) is the first milestone in a process that began 29 July 1992, with the formation of a bilateral permanent working commission to study and define together issues of common interest in view of normalizing relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel.

Initially, the carefully chosen term “normalizing” was understood differently by the two negotiating partners. Apparently, for Israel, normalization of relations referred first and foremost to the establishment of full, formal diplomatic relations. And this was perceived as the ultimate repudiation of Christian anti-Semitism.

For the Holy See normalization primarily refers to regularizing, in an appropriate legal way, the status of the Catholic Church in the state of Israel. Full diplomatic relations are seen as the final and culminating stage.

At stake was a challenge of mutual understanding. Was the agreement to be about relations between two sovereign entities, two religions or a mixture of both?

Since Jews perceive themselves as both a religion and an ethnic group – a nation – religious dialogue and reconciliation with Christians involve recognizing and accepting the Jewish state.

On the other hand, Catholics, with an understanding of the separation of church and state, distinguish between religious relations between Christians and Jews and diplomatic relations concerned with political matters.

The patient and persevering process of dialogue did bear fruit in this “first and fundamental agreement,” which describes itself as providing “a sound and lasting basis for the continued development of …relations and for the furtherance of the commission’s task.”

The articles of the agreement, after affirming freedom of religion and conscience and repudiating anti-Semitism and discrimination, outline the rights of the church to carry out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions. The elaboration of the complex and perhaps thorny details of many of these matters, including property and economic matters, will be the subject of continued negotiations, after receiving reports from one or more joint subcommissions of experts.

Lastly the agreement calls for the exchange of diplomatic envoys.

Some observers were surprised at the speed with which the bilateral permanent working commission was able to arrive at a “Fundamental Agreement.” Its roots, it should be noted, can be traced to Vatican II in its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” or as it is commonly called, “Nostra Aetate.”

To the credit of the council’s fathers, they foresaw a time when ancient differences, even animosities, would be susceptible to reconciliation through evolving dialogue. People of good will, in genuine and open discussion of differences, would be able to agree on shared values, which they could proclaim together.

Another important antecedent of the agreement was the Madrid Conference, which brought a new and more effective perspective and methodology to the peacemaking process. In this new atmosphere, the Holy See stands ready to offer its contribution to the peace negotiations.

With any bilateral agreement it is important to recognize that third parties may well have understandings that differ from those of the parties reaching the agreement.

In some parts of the Arab world, the agreement is perceived as an endorsement on the part of the Holy See of the policies of the state of Israel, many of which are criticized as violations of human rights.

Actually, for the Holy See the agreement has nothing to do with a judgment on the activities and policies of the state of Israel. However the agreement does provide the Holy See with an official and recognized channel of communication to add its voice to the discussion of human rights and other pressing issues.

Some Palestinian observers, including Nemer Hammad, the P.L.O. representative in Italy, have since called for fuller relations between the Holy See and the emerging Palestinian entity.

Less than one month after the Jerusalem signing ceremony, a delegation of prominent Palestinians was received at the Secretariat of State at the Vatican. The long and cordial meeting was, in the words of the Holy See’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, “the beginning of a phase of more frequent contacts and of a more official dialogue between the Holy See and Palestinian representatives.”

An issue not referred to in the agreement, but of immense importance to all, is the status of Jerusalem. Here again I would like to quote Navarro-Valls:

“Questions relative to the city of Jerusalem and other human places, which for so long have been the object of the Holy See’s concern, are not directly or explicitly mentioned in the agreement because of their international and multilateral references, which do not permit solving them with an agreement which is, by definition, bilateral between the two signing parties.

“That does not mean that the position of the Holy See with regard to such questions has changed or that their importance has been in any way forgotten. The Holy See has noted that, in what concerns the territorial questions and the sovereignty linked to this, something has changed in the position of the parties most directly interested.”

The Holy See does have its own role to play in the region “to promote respect for human rights and first among them, the right to freedom of religion and conscience” as noted in a 1 January front page editorial of L’Osservatore Romano.

Msgr. Celli best summed up the spirit of the agreement when he said, “…dialogue and respectful collaboration between Catholics and Jews in Israel, and throughout the world, will be marked by renewed energy.”

This is the stuff of which history and peace are made.

Excerpts of “Fundamental Agreement”

Freedom of religion and conscience. “…Israel…affirms its continuing commitment to uphold and observe the human right to freedom of religion and conscience…
“The Holy See affirms the…[same]…”

Repudiation of anti-Semitism. “The Holy See and…Israel are committed to…combating all forms of anti-Semitism…racism and of religious intolerance, and in promoting…understanding among nations, tolerance among communities and respect for human life and dignity….”

Sovereign rights. [Both parties] “recognize that both are free in the exercise of their respective rights and powers…

“…Israel recognizes the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions, and to have its own institutions…

“…the Holy See and…Israel will negotiate on giving [Catholic legal personality at canon law] full effect in Israeli law…”

Holy places and freedom of worship. “…Israel affirms its continuing commitment to maintain and respect the status quo in the Christian holy places…and the respective rights of the Christian communities…”

Favoring pilgrimages. [Both parties] “…have an interest in favoring Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land….”

Educational institutions. “The Holy See and…Israel jointly reaffirm the right of the Catholic Church to establish, maintain and direct schools and institutes of study at all levels…”

Cultural exchanges. “The Holy See and…Israel recognize a common interest in promoting and encouraging cultural exchanges between Catholic institutions worldwide and educational, cultural and research institutions in Israel…”

Communications media. “…Israel recognizes that the right of the Catholic Church to freedom of expression [to carry] out its functions is exercised also through the church’s own communications media…”

Health and social welfare. “The Holy See and…Israel jointly reaffirm the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its charitable functions through its health care and social welfare institutions…”

Property, economic and fiscal matters. “The Holy See and…Israel jointly reaffirm the right of the Catholic Church to property….[they] will negotiate in good faith a comprehensive agreement, containing solutions acceptable to both parties, on unclear, unsettled and disputed issues, concerning property, economic and fiscal matters relating to the Catholic Church generally or to specific Catholic communities or institutions…”

International conflict resolution. “The Holy See and…Israel declare their respective commitment to the promotion of the peaceful resolution of conflicts among states and nations, excluding violence and terror from international life….”

Continued negotiations. [Both parties] “will continue to negotiate in good faith…”

Terminology and existing treaties. “In this agreement the parties use these terms…‘The Catholic Church’ and ‘the church’… including…its communities and institutions…‘The state of Israel’ and ‘the state’…including…its authorities established by law.

“…the parties agree that this agreement does not prejudice rights and obligations arising from existing treaties…”

Diplomatic relations. “Upon signing of the present fundamental agreement and in preparation for the establishment of full diplomatic relations, the Holy See and…Israel exchange special representatives…

“…upon the beginning of the implementation of the…agreement, the Holy See and…Israel will establish full diplomatic relations at the level of apostolic nunciature on the part of the Holy See, and embassy on the part of …Israel.”

Effective date. “This agreement shall enter into force on the date of the latter notification of ratification by a party.”

Archbishop Martino is the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations.

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