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(photo credit: GPO)
During a conversation with President Moshe Katsav, Pope Benedict XVI said that he would visit Israel at some point in the future.
Katsav said at a press conference following the meeting that he had invited Benedict to visit Israel - an invitation first extended by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a letter to the pope in July. The president said he hoped the visit would occur in 2006.
Katsav finished his visit in Rome Thursday morning at an official parting ceremony and headed off to his scheduled meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. He thereby became the first president of Israel to have officially met with two pontiffs.
Katsav and the pope discussed the current anti-Semitism in Europe, as well as the status and future of Christian holy sites in Israel.
The president had welcomed Pope John Paul II when the latter made his historic visit to Jerusalem in 2000. Katsav invited Benedict to Israel at their meeting, and showed him photographs of the ancient church discovered recently at Megiddo.
The meeting with the new pope has been fraught with controversy resulting from a report in a Vatican publication that the two would sign an exchange agreement whereby Israel would cede control of the room of the Last Supper to the church in return for a church property in Spain that more than five centuries ago served as a synagogue.
Elaborations on the report have appeared in publications around the globe and in cyberspace.
When he was in Israel recently to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Religious Relations with the Jews, said in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post that no agreement would be signed.
Katsav professed to know nothing of the matter but, when the rumors persisted, Beit Hanassi issued an official statement declaring that no document would be signed by Katsav and Benedict. Denials notwithstanding, there are skeptics in Israel who claim they were just a cover-up to defuse a sensitive situation.
After his visit at the Vatican, Katsav will spend the weekend with the Jewish community in Milan.
In Rome on Wednesday, Katsav held talks with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a strong supporter of Israel, and gave a lukewarm reception to Monday's agreement to open the Rafah crossing.
He said that Israel would have preferred to monitor the crossing directly instead of leaving the job to European monitors.
"Of course we would have preferred to have an Israeli presence there to have real-time information, but this is the compromise that was reached," Katsav said.
Speaking to reporters after holding talks with Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, Katsav said Israel remains worried that weapons and terrorists will be able to flow across the border.
However, he added, "I trust that, even with the new limitations, our security forces will be able to control and prevent the contraband of weapons and people."
After talks with Berlusconi, Katsav was scheduled to meet with opposition leaders and members of Rome's Jewish community.
Katsav is scheduled to have another controversial meeting next week when he meets with Greek President Karolas Popoulias, who is coming to Israel for the official installation of Bishop Theophilous, 53, as Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Theophilous was unanimously elected by the Greek Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem on August 22 following the ouster in May of Irineos, whose property dealings with Jews cost him his title and his authority.
Israel is unwilling to recognize Theophilous, a factor that has caused the Patriarch-designate to appeal to the High Court of Justice.
Irineos was also a thorn in Israel's side. Prior to his election in August 2001, Israel had exerted strenuous efforts to prevent his being voted into office.
Popoulias is coming to Israel on what is diplomatically termed a private visit. However, he is due to meet with Katsav on Sunday.
AP contributed to this report.