(photo credit: AP [file])
Peace in the Middle East and the resolution of property and tax disputes with the Roman Catholic Church will top the agenda of President Shimon Peres's September 6 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
On Friday, Vatican Radio announced the two will meet next month at Castel Gandalfo, the Pope's summer palace outside Rome.
Peres will travel to Italy on September 5 and will also meet with his counterpart, President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
While the trip will be Peres' first since assuming the Presidency, as foreign minister and prime minister the veteran politician has been a frequent guest of the Vatican. In April 2006, while out of public office, he had a private meeting with Pope Benedict to discuss the political situation in the region.
Benedict wrote Peres in July, congratulating him on his election and stating that he hoped his presidency would serve as a vehicle for peace.
In Nov 2005 Benedict met with then President Moshe Katsav in Rome and the Israeli leader extended a formal invitation to visit Israel.
Benedict responded positively, but no date has yet been set. A papal visit to Israel is understood to be contingent on the successful resolution of the long running legal dispute over the tax and property status of Catholic institutions in Israel.
The papal audience comes at the end of a summer of uneven Jewish-Catholic relations, and will take place three days after a meeting in Jerusalem of the joint Israeli-Vatican Bilateral Permanent Working Commission to resolve the property disputes.
Last month the Chief Rabbinate of Israel wrote Benedict asking for clarification on his July decision to permit wider use of the 1962 Latin 'Tridentine' rite, which includes Good Friday prayers for the "conversion of the Jews." Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone later told reporters the conversion prayer question was under study.
Jewish groups have also expressed concern over the Pope's August 5 meeting with Polish priest, Fr. Tadeusz Rydzyk, the director of Radio Maryja. The Council of Europe's Commission on Racism and Intolerance criticized the station in 2005, saying it had been "openly inciting to anti-Semitism for several years."
Polish newspapers reported Fr. Rydzyk had been permitted to kiss the Pope's ring during an August audience. In response to questions raised by Jewish groups, the Vatican issued a statement on August 9 saying the "kiss" did not "imply any change in the Holy See's well-known position on relations between Catholics and Jews."
However, Vatican and Israeli officials say relations have never been better. On August 16, Oded Ben-Hur, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, told the Catholic News Service "officially and institutionally, relations are constantly improving."