(photo credit: AP [file])
A senior Vatican diplomat who served as papal envoy to Israel has described Vatican-Israeli relations as worsening, blaming Israel for failing to keep promises related to church land, taxes and travel restrictions on Arab clergy.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi lashed out at Israel in an interview posted Friday on Terrasanta.net, an online publication about the Holy Land.
"If I must be frank, the relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomatic ties," said Sambi, interviewed earlier in the week in Washington, where he now serves as Pope Benedict XVI's envoy to the United States.
"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 said.
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.
Israel has rescinded some travel privileges for those clergy because of security concerns.
Israel and the Palestinian territories are home to a small Christian minority.
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, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said: "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 Israeli 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.
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