Vatican-Israeli Commission Progress

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Vatican and Israel said they made good progress on financial and fiscal issues in a top–level meeting at the Vatican.

A joint statement released June 15 by the bilateral working commission said “very significant progress” had been made in an “open, friendly and constructive atmosphere.”

The Vatican delegation was headed by Msgr. Ettore Balestrero, undersecretary for relations with states, while the Israeli negotiators were led by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.

Israeli and Vatican sources confirmed positive movement in the negotiations, which the statement said would be resumed at the same plenary level in December in Israel. Additional informal meetings will be held before then.

In an interview published June 16 with the Italian economic daily Il Sole 24 Ore, Ayalon said he expects an agreement on all issues to be reached within 18 months.

He said the official statement “reflects real progress, both on the economic questions and on the jurisdiction of holy sites.”

Property — including churches and convents in Israel — has historically been tax exempt; the negotiations have been over church property that is less directly institutional.

There is also a dispute over the sovereignty of some holy places, including the Cenacle, where Christians believe the Last Supper took place. It is currently under the guardianship of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

Ayalon was quoted June 16 in The Jerusalem Post as saying “Israel will not give up sovereignty over any of the holy places,” but added that the state would keep freedom of worship and access open to all religions.

The Jerusalem Post article said that an agreement had been reached that confirmed the tax-exempt status of church institutions, but that it would not be extended to church-owned businesses.

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