Pope Benedict may visit Holy Land next year

Benedict has open invitation from Peres, but tax dispute, wartime pope issue have prevented visit.

Pope Benedict 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict XVI may visit the Holy Land next year, Israeli and Vatican officials said Thursday. Benedict has a long-standing open invitation from President Shimon Peres to visit Israel but has not responded to date, Peres spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch said. The Holy See and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1994, after centuries of painful relations between Catholicism and Judaism stemming from anti-Semitism and pogroms. But a decade-old tax dispute between Israel and the Vatican, as well a very public riff over the conduct of wartime Pope Pius XII, has clouded relations. Negotiations between the State of Israel and Vatican officials on the issue of taxation of church properties started over a decade ago, but have failed to resolve the issue. At the core of the dispute are hundreds of millions of shekels in overdue property tax that Jerusalem municipal officials say the Vatican and an array of Christian churches in Jerusalem owe the city. According to law, properties that are used as houses of prayer are exempted from paying property tax. But the churches, which own vast amount of properties in Jerusalem, are required to pay the city property tax for buildings they own that are not used for worship, including hostels, guest houses, and schools, the city said. The total amount of unpaid property tax amounts to roughly NIS 300 million, with the Latin Patriarchate the biggest offender, a city spokesman said. The debt collection has been frozen pending ongoing negotiations between the State of Israel and the Vatican over the delicate issue. The Vatican is said to be willing to pay only a symbolic fee for the city services they receive. Any agreement reached between the Prime Minister's Office and the Vatican will then apply to all the various church properties in Jerusalem. Another point of contention centers on the figure of Pius XII, the pontiff who reigned from 1939 until his death in 1958. Israel says Pius did not do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust during World War II. A caption accompanying a photograph on display at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial says Pius did not act to save Jews from the Nazi genocide and kept a largely neutral position throughout the war, even when news of the Nazi extermination of Jews reached the Vatican. The Vatican has always claimed that Pius XII worked diplomatically to save Jews during the Holocaust, and recently have put Pius on the path to sainthood. The role of the Holocaust-era pope has long been controversial, and the Vatican has struggled to defend him over his silence during the mass murder of six million Jews. The late Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land in a 2000 pilgrimage.