December 30, 1993 marked a historic day for the state of Israel and the Holy See, as they signed the Fundamental Agreement, thereby establishing fully-fledged diplomatic relations.
The Jerusalem Post dubbed the event as the beginning of "a new era of understanding" between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, following almost 2,000 years of antagonistic relations "saturated with tears and blood," as described by then-Cardinal Jospeh Aloisius Ratziger.
The agreement was signed in Jerusalem by then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and Msgr. Claudio Maria Celli, then-Vatican under-secretary for foreign affairs.
"After 2,000 years, this is a very important move forward in the dialogue between the Jewish and Christian faiths," Beilin said after the signing. "It was time for them; it was time for us."
The agreement was the result of 18 months of negotiations.
In the agreement, the Vatican agreed not to become directly involved in conflicts regarding "disputed territories and unsettled borders," while reserving the right to speak out on moral issues. The agreement also called on both sides to "declare their respective commitment to the promotion of the peaceful resolution of conflicts among States and nations, excluding violence and terror from international life."
With regard to Jerusalem, the agreement represented a slump in progress. In the past the Vatican had maintained that the city should be internationalized, however, in the course of the negotiations, Vatican spokesmen said that the bilateral committee saw all issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as beyond its scope. In the end, any mention of the issue of Jerusalem was omitted from the agreement.
In another clause, Israel guaranteed freedom of worship and committed itself to protect the holy places, including churches and monasteries. However, the agreement appeared to fall short of ensuring a right of sanctuary, since it only ensured protection for "proper use," of such a religious site.
In a clause seen as very important by negotiators from both sides, Israel and the Holy See agreed to fight anti-Semitism, racism, and religious intolerance.
"It is a very powerful condemnation, especially in areas where the Holocaust took place," Beilin said.
Then-US Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn said the pact opened "a new and important chapter" in the 2,000-year history of Christians and Jews often marked by "misunderstanding and even mistrust."
A few weeks later on January 10, 1994, the Nunciature (Vatican embassy) was opened in Israel, and the Israeli embassy was opened in Rome. Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, who had previously served as the Apostolic Delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine, was appointed as the first Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, and Shmuel Hadas was later appointed as Israel's first ambassador to the Holy See.
Several issues remained unresolved, including the legal state of the Church and its institutions in Israel, as well economic matters. After three more years of negotiations, a further agreement called the Agreement between the State of Israel and the Holy See was signed in Jerusalem on November 1997. This accord defined the status of the Catholic Church in Israel and its hierarchy under Israeli law. It also marked the first legal recognition of the Catholic Church by any government in the Holy Land.
A year later, the Vatican issued an apology for the Catholic failure to do more for the Jewish people during the Holocaust, which experts described as an important step in easing relations.
An additional milestone in the relationship was reached when Pope John Paul II visited Israel in March 2000. The pope visited holy sites of all three major religions, blessed Israel and expressed support for a Palestinian homeland. He visited Yad Vashem and placed a note in the Western Wall, asking for God's forgiveness for "the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer." The pope's trip was hailed as a great success and contrasted with his predecessor's visit in 1964, when Pope Paul VI visited for less than a day, did not mention Israel by name, nor meet with any Israeli official. "It was beyond history, beyond memory" Rabbi Michael Melchior said of Pope John Paul II's trip, after which the rabbi announced that Israel would set up a forum to promote peace between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, and was succeeded by Benedict XVI, who paid a visit to Israel in May 2009 amid ongoing talks about economic issues and who had continued efforts to reach a Final Agreement.
Progress has been slow, and several outstanding issues remain to this day. The most recent talks took place in June this year, led by Mgr Ettore Balestrero, Under-Secretary for Relations with States and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Among the outstanding issues are: which religious institutions owned by the Holy See in Israel will be exempted from tax, in the same manner as synagogues and mosques; the expropriation of Church property for infrastructure purposes; whether church-owned businesses will be exempted from taxes; and questions of sovereignty over sites such as the Cenacle – the site of the Last Supper located outside Zion Gate in Jerusalem.
Following the latest meeting, the Holy See and the State of Israel released a joint statement saying that the negotiations “took place in a thoughtful and constructive atmosphere. The commission took notice that significant progress was made towards the conclusion of the Agreement.”
However, a diplomatic official said that while significant progress may indeed have occurred; there was still a long way to go in dealing with issues that have bedeviled the sides for years.
Thus, while the accord of 2003 marked a ground-breaking turning point in Israel-Holy See relations, as well as in ties between the wider Jewish and Christian worlds, almost two decades on, the sides are still struggling to finalize the agreement. Perhaps 2013 will bear fruit.
Herb Keinon and material from The Jerusalem Post archives contributed to this report.